ALL ABOUT YVES
Yves Saint Laurent | Marie Cosindas, 1968
Seven years before he died, Yves Saint Laurent agreed to be filmed by documentary-maker David Teboul, for a rare behind-the-scenes look at his work. In the opening scene, watching a slideshow of family photographs, he grimaces: “J’ai joué le ‘grand couturier’…” His voice is both sad, and self-mocking; the voice of an old man looking back across a great distance at his frail sixteen-year-old self, head bowed over his lavishly-dressed paper dolls. Growing up in 1940’s French Algeria, the young Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent dreamed of Paris: a bullied outcast at school, he escaped into fantasy at home - devouring his mother’s fashion magazines, sketching endlessly, and predicting (in the safety of his adoring family circle, at least) a future of spectacular fame.
Six decades on, the story of the little boy who played ‘grand couturier’, and who grew up to become the century’s most notorious fashion designer, shows no sign of losing its’ appeal. 2014 will the release of two films based on his life: the first, actor/director Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent, is currently topping the French box office, charming audiences with its’ affectionately human portrait of the man behind the myth. In October, the second - directed by Bertrand Bonello, best known for the controversial L’Apollonide (House of Tolerance) - will be released. Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s partner, has been vocal in his support for Lespert’s film - and equally outspoken in his condemnation of Bonnello’s: he’s granted Lespert access to his extensive archives, whilst Kering (the luxury conglomerate which now owns the Yves Saint Laurent label) has thrown its’ support behind Bonnello’s rival project.
And so the stage is set for the latest round in the battle for the Saint Laurent legacy. Since the late Nineties, some of the biggest names in fashion, from Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz to Tom Ford, have spent periods at the label’s helm; but ultimately, even the all-conquering Ford was defeated - simply, it seemed, not Yves enough. In 2012, Hedi Slimane - first hired as a menswear designer back in 1996, when he (like Yves four decades before him) was a shy, awkwardly tall young man - returned to the house, and immediately shortened the label’s name to Saint Laurent. The move provoked an immediate storm of protest, and a surprisingly long-lived backlash: last autumn, Parisian store Colette fell out with the label over t-shirts which bore the stark, compellingly catchy slogan: AIN’T LAURENT WITHOUT YVES.
It’s not hard to understand the world’s fascination with the YSL story; it’s a saga that blends wild public success and private suffering, centred on a man who incarnated all the glamour and pain of modern celebrity. Outwardly, he led a charmed life from the start. Just two years after that family photo was taken, he had won an international design competition (beating future rival, Karl Lagerfeld), and been hired by fashion’s reigning Sun King, Christian Dior. Lespert’s film begins at this point, with the twenty-year-old Yves enthroned as Dior’s crown prince. As played by Pierre Niney, he is at once violently demanding and intensely shy, pampered and secure – as he had been in Algeria – in a world of adoring women. But that sheltered, happy existence was soon to be shattered, with Dior’s premature death in 1957 pushing his seemingly-reluctant successor into the spotlight.
Hauled in front of the cameras for endless interviews and photoshoots, Saint Laurent became an object of immediate fascination: quiet, timid, with neatly-parted schoolboy hair, anxious eyes lurking behind thick glasses, and a frail body encased in a tight black suit. L’Express hailed him as France’s latest ‘enfant triste’ – another of the country’s new wave of melancholy prodigies, like novelist Françoise Sagan and painter Bernard Buffet. WWD’s correspondent was more specific, and less charitable – she saw an “an ugly, ungainly, overgrown boy with thick glasses, and so horribly shy he couldn’t take his eyes off the floor.” Charged at 21 with safeguarding the future of the world’s most successful fashion house, the pressure was intense: after his’ first, rapturously received collection, the International Herald Tribune’s correspondent would famously report: “Everybody was crying. It was the emotional fashion binge of all time.” The rapturous reviews were soon followed by doubting ones, though, and within two years the House of Dior would take advantage of his military call-up to have their boy wonder replaced. Exiled from his Avenue Montaigne paradise, Saint Laurent fell apart, and was admitted to mental hospital a bare three weeks after reporting for duty: a has-been, at 24.
But Yves was not alone. Shortly after his Dior début in 1958, he had met Buffet’s then-boyfriend, Pierre Bergé, and embarked a personal and professional relationship which would endure to the end of his life. Bergé got Yves out of hospital and back to work, helping to set up the label whose three sensuously entwined initials would revolutionise Parisian fashion in the Sixties, scandalise the world in the Seventies, and stamp themselves imperiously across in the Eighties. From the outset, their roles were clear. Yves was the vulnerable, suffering artist, and Pierre the fiercely controlling protector: a man who, in Lespert’s film, is painfully aware of his public image - “the pimp who’s found his all-star hooker.” As Bergé, Guillaume Gallienne is a solid yet strangely vulnerable presence; a jailor who seems just as imprisoned in their tormented relationship as Yves himself is. And in the frail Niney, the story has found an actor perhaps more like Saint Laurent than Saint Laurent himself ever was - tortured, intense, and yet endearingly childlike as he stumbles out of couture’s disciplined universe into the liberated decadence of the Sixties. There are signs of a dark side, too; the jealous possessiveness of friends, the trembling fear of physical intimacy, the ability to work himself up into convenient hysterics at the slightest hint of pressure. And there are flashes of a strain of steel that few saw, or chose to see. “Yves was a very strong person,” says Susan Train, Condé Nast’s Parisian bureau chief, and a friend of both Saint Laurent and Bergé. “Don’t forget, he’s a Leo! But he was much happier to keep Pierre out in front, making all the noise, and doing the barking and nipping at people’s heels. That’s what, when I first knew him, Pierre had been for Bernard Buffet; the public voice, and the one who took over all the nitty gritty. But Yves depended enormously on Pierre, and he would never have been the success he was without him.”
That success took time: the first Yves Saint Laurent show, in January 1962, was only moderately successful. But in the years that followed his star soared. He created ideas became overnight sensations, and then timeless icons: the Mondrian-print shift dress, the Saharienne safari jacket, the Le Smoking trouser suit, Catherine Deneuve’s Belle de Jour wardrobe. And in the mid-Sixties, his ready-to-wear Rive Gauche label became a global phenomenon, offering women everywhere the chance to get an affordable slice of the YSL dream. The young, timid Yves (the “shy, sad-eyed person who seemed to quiver at the sound of strange voices” ) had gone, replaced by a charming, seemingly assured man who was more than just a household name - like Coco Chanel, he had become his brand’s most alluringly potent incarnation.
In place of the enfant triste’, magazines began to be filled with pictures of Yves at play: partying with Halston and Warhol in New York, making mischief with muses like Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise in Paris, and relaxing with the kif-smoking jet set in Marrakech. His dark suits disappeared, replaced by luxuriously louche kaftans, silk shirts, suede jackets and leather trenchcoats. And when he stepped in front of Jeanloup Sieff’s lens to promote his first men’s fragrance in 1971, he went nude. His instructions were specific: “I want to create a scandal.” The resulting campaign did exactly that, creating the image which would endure in the public gaze forever - the rich sweep of brown hair, the thick, black-framed glasses, the lean, sinewy frame and long, elegant hands.
But that same image became a desperately effective mask. The paparazzi-friendly Yves that danced the night away in the Sixties and Seventies was high - on success, on fame, and on an ever-changing cocktail of alcohol, acid and cocaine. Off camera there were fierce, increasingly violent rows with Pierre, who was struggling to keep both the business and Yves himself afloat. Ultimately, Bergé would move out, unable to cope with Yves’ utter self-absorption. As the years went on they would both have other interests, other passions, other lovers (most notably Lagerfeld protégé Jacques de Bascher, whose affair with Yves would add yet another dimension to the bitter Lagerfeld/Saint Laurent rivalry.) But they would continue to function as a symbiotic double act to the end. And while Pierre became an increasingly belligerent spokesperson, Yves flinched away from the public gaze, exhausted by the fashion treadmill and yet - apparently - unable to stop. There would be rumours of illness, rumours of AIDS, even regular reports of his death. In his diaries, Warhol recorded: “Loulou told us that YSL really was such a genius that he just can’t take it, he has to take a million pills and the whole office gets so depressed when he’s depressed…” Finally, Yves simply withdrew: after his death from brain cancer in 2008, Pierre commented simply that his partner had “entered depression as one enters a religion.” And, as ever, he took care of everything. “Everything I didn’t have, he had,” Yves would say in 2001; “His strength meant I could rest on him when I was out of breath.”
Even at his most extroverted moments, Yves had been shielded by his cabal of intimates; towards the end, his world would reduce to his studio on Avenue Marceau, to the couple’s holiday home in Marrakech, and to the cloistered apartment on Rue de Babylone to which fewer and fewer people were admitted. (Although Pierre, long after they stopped living together, would continue to have his own key.) The man who had once declared couture’s certain death retreated back into that world’s rarefied nostalgia, whilst simultaneously signing his name to everything from sunglasses to bedlinens to cigarettes, and licensing a range of era-defining fragrances (Opium, Jazz, Kouros, Paris, Rive Gauche), which would keep YSL’s name firmly in the spotlight - as the man behind the initials slowly faded away.
In life and in death, Yves Saint Laurent was endlessly reviewed, interviewed, gossiped about and analysed (as were those around him; “What can I tell you that I haven’t already told somebody else?” Susan Train sighs.) Yet, at heart, he remains an enigma. Early in Lespert’s film, he confides in Bergé “You know, I’m not that nice.” And you sense that not-niceness remains the largely untold part of the Saint Laurent story – the man who could cut friends and supporters out of his life without a backward glance, who averted his gaze from unpleasantness, and who sheltered behind Bergé’s aggressive energy just as completely as he sheltered behind his thick-lensed glasses. But Yves was a genius, indulged and excused by a generation who believed that geniuses should live by different rules. But in some respects that archaic hothouse universe still endures, particularly in Paris: it’s only been three years, after all, since Christophe Decarnin left Balmain amidst rumours of a nervous breakdown, and since John Galliano - another indulged Dior boy wonder - had his own startlingly public fall from grace.
Lespert doesn’t shy away from that dark side in Yves Saint Laurent, but focuses on what the director calls the “belles années” - Yves’ best years, from his accession to the Dior throne in 1958 to his triumphant Ballets Russes couture collection in 1976. They were also, quite literally, the most beautiful years; years in his world blossomed from restrained black-and-white into glamorous colour, and during which everyone he knew and cared about was beautiful too. And the film ends when the beauty does, with Yves stumbling onto the runway - mouth slumped askew, eyes lost behind his glasses, his movement unsteady and uncertain. He would carry on designing till 2002 – every show remorselessly measured against his past hits, and every final bow accompanied by the suspense of waiting to see whether he’d manage the short walk to the end of the runway.
Bonello’s film, starring Hannibal Rising’s Gaspard Ulliel, will condense the timeline even further, narrowing to the 1966-1976 period. That means missing the beginnings of the relationship with Bergé - but allowing a greater focus on Yves during the years when he accomplished his definitive works, fell in and out of obsession with Jacques de Bascher, and finally imploded. And as the press fans the flames of rivalry between the two productions, the Bonello team are playing up their version as the ‘unauthorised’ story - one which will portray Yves’ truth, rather than Pierre’s.
It’s hard to know how much the truth matters. Yves Saint Laurent has long been more legend than fact, and even in life spent decades lost behind a screen of conjecture and rumour. And whatever the reality, the house that Yves and Pierre built remains a powerfully tangible legacy: one whose story will continue long after this year of biopics is over, and all the story’s players have finally left the stage.
Yves Saint Laurent | Abbas, 1986
Written for The Observer