How Saint Laurent’s Accessories Became Critical to Its Legacy

Understanding the iconic fashion brand’s renown by its appurtenances.

On every seat at the Saint Laurent SS18 show were quotes from Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s former lover and business partner who passed away aged 86, only a short time ago, on September 8, 2017. That the show was laced with a sombre, shadowy hue felt apt; a tribute to one of the most influential men behind the Saint Laurent brand, and caretaker of its legacy after Yves passed away in 2008.

Yet if the show felt somewhat melancholic it is fitting that the opening of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris is marked only by celebration. The museum, which opened in the midst of Paris Fashion Week, is the realisation of Bergé’s vision and endeavour, and marks a seminal moment for the brand. While previous exhibitions around Yves Saint Laurent have focused on his fashion design, this new museum invites audiences to engage with the narrative behind the brand, opening up the mechanisms of the couture house to the public and introducing Yves Saint Laurent’s artistry to a new generation.

Crown made of plain corn and cross necklace of pearls and coral, worn with the wedding dress, Autumn/Winter 1999 haute couture collection. | © Fondation Pierre Bergé — Yves Saint Laurent, Paris/All Rights Reserved

‘Chanel freed women, and I empowered them,’ Saint Laurent once said. It’s a legacy that Olivier Flaviano, director of the Fondation Pierre Bergé — Yves Saint Laurent, is focused on ensuring is communicated through the opening of the new museum in Paris, alongside another in Marrakech. ‘Sometimes women might not realise, but everyone is wearing something of Yves Saint Laurent, even today. He was the first couturier to design the tuxedo jacket, the trench coat, and so on, for women, and he used all of these kind of men’s garments and transformed them into womenswear.’ He tells us as we speak ahead of the opening and the release of Phaidon’s new book on the designer’s work, Yves Saint Laurent Accessories. ‘In doing that, he invented the modern women’s wardrobe, and what’s amazing is that it’s still very obvious today.’

Indeed Saint Laurent’s legacy is unparalleled. In an industry that is deft at reproducing trends and pulling from archives of collections past, Saint Laurent operated in such a way as to offer genuinely new, disruptive collections. ‘There’s this quote from Yves Saint Laurent which is “my weapon is the perspective in which I see my society” ‘ says Flaviano, ‘and it’s thanks to that that he has been able to achieve such work.’ Saint Laurent certainly maintained an extraordinary take on his environment. Starting his own brand in the 1970s, the designer harnessed the bohemian spirit of the time, weaving the influences of travels to places such as Morocco into his work. His appropriation of masculine styles was radical; in New York Nan Kempner was famously turned away from Le Côte Basque while wearing her tuxedo. He cropped jackets, shortened skirts and introduced bright vibrant colours, ornate accessories and a cascade of textures into the heart of his work.

Gold flower and bird earrings | © Fondation Pierre Bergé — Yves Saint Laurent, Paris/All Rights Reserved

Such initiative and innovation is impressive for man who grew up far from the cultural hub of Paris, in Oran, Algeria. According to Flaviano, his fascination with fashion came through reading his mother’s magazines. ‘I guess when you’re a boy and you’re in Oran and you’re reading all these magazines about Paris, you have a fantasy about the place. And the first thing he did, when he left, was that he moved there.’

Saint Laurent arrived at a time when opportunities for careers in fashion design were limited to either creating costume for opera and ballet, or joining a couture house. A chance encounter with Michel de Brunhoff, Editor-in-Chief of French Vogue, led to Yves pursuing an education at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. However the restrictive education here bored him, and by the end of the first year he decided to send over a series sketches to de Brunhoff, who in turn passed them onto Christian Dior. Dior hired him an assistant at his studio, breaking Yves onto the international scene. By the time he was 21, he was one of the most famous designers in France.

It’s the kind of fashion fairy tale — give or take a little flux (Saint Laurent took over from Dior in 1957, only to be sacked a few collections afterwards) — that wouldn’t happen in today’s saturated market: ‘The amazing thing is that when he left the Dior house, he succeeded in creating his own haute couture house’ notes Flaviano of Yves’ very Parisian introduction into the fashion industry.

Flower earrings in enamelled metal, flower necklace made of enamelled metal and pieces of mother-of-pearl, butterfly brooches made of mother-of- pearl | © Fondation Pierre Bergé — Yves Saint Laurent, Paris/All Rights Reserved

But if timeliness played a role in providing space for Yves Saint Laurent to thrive, the creative innovation was all his own. Nothing exemplifies this more evidently than the now iconic Mondrian dress, which was created in 1965. Inspiration came from a book that Yves had been given by his mother, and he immediately recognised the power of the print — in spite of the fact that the merits of Mondrian as an artist weren’t fully realised in Europe until a big exhibition four years later. ‘The thing is that Yves Saint Laurent wasn’t only a fashion designer. He and Pierre Bergé were art lovers, opera lovers, book collectors.’ The couple started their art collection in 1960, and continued to build it through until Saint Laurent’s death. When Bergé put it up for sale in 2009, it was described as the ‘art sale of the century’. However Flaviano is also quick to note — ‘There is always a mystery around YSL’s creation, and I can’t tell you exactly why all of a sudden in 1988 he’s designing all of these capes inspired by Georges Braques.’

Surely, though, given rich variety of accessories that Yves Saint Laurent created, there must be some evident tropes? ‘I’m going to tell you the story of the heart’ says Olivier, with a smile in his voice. ‘For his first collection, Yves Saint Laurent designed a really big heart. Before the collection went out, he decided to put the heart on his favourite model, on his favourite dress. This ritual then happened from 1962 to the end of his career.’ Other recurring motifs included the butterflies, ribbons and lucky charms.

Yves Saint Laurent and model Amalia backstage at the Spring/Summer 2000 haute couture show | © Fondation Pierre Bergé — Yves Saint Laurent, Paris/All Rights Reserved

‘What’s interesting about accessories is that he had this quote which was that he liked dresses to be sober, and accessories to be wild. Through his accessories he had a great inventiveness, and that’s why it’s so wide in terms of shape, material and technique as well.’ Olivier reflects for a moment, before adding, ‘I was telling you about the modern woman wardrobe. For Yves Saint Laurent he liked the way accessories could change a look. You could have a very simple necklace on a black pullover and jacket, and you change your accessories, and all of a sudden you have an evening look.’

In Phaidon’s new book — the first to cover Saint Laurent’s accessories so comprehensively — readers are also immersed in a never-before-seen world of the house; remarkable designs are supplemented by a photographs, sketches, catwalk photos and advertisements, all combining to illustrate how vital accessories were to the final look.

Headdress created by Claude Lalanne, Autumn/Winter 1981 haute couture collection. Picture credit: © Fondation Pierre Bergé — Yves Saint Laurent, Paris/All Rights Reserved

With decades of work and such intricate details and influences to highlight, presenting the work of Yves Saint Laurent to modern audiences offers a unique and complex change. Flaviano is excited about offering these new narratives: ‘In Paris, we’re opening an exhibition in a former haute couture house, and also showing how a former haute couture house worked, which nobody knows — even the couture houses today don’t work like couture houses did during the 20th century.’ Beyond the work of Saint Laurent the man, these timely openings and releases also embody the wider collaborative spirit of the house, and the texture of individuals who helped to produce the brand. ‘What was missing in this — we had the work, we had the garments — what was missing was the voice of the people who worked there.’ As such, the foundation invited former employees to come back and speak about their unique roles for a series of short films. ‘It was very moving to do that’ says Olivier, ‘and very moving for them come back and do that, and very moving for us to receive and collect those memories.’

As the house looks forward to the next era with Anthony Vaccarello at the helm, celebrating the legacy of Pierre Bergé and Saint Laurent and preserving it for the next generation is a vital. ‘It’s about explaining how the house was working, as well as telling the story of the garments. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.’

Yves Saint Laurent Accessories is out now on Phaidon Press, £39.95 
A version of this article originally appeared on Culture Trip where
more of India Doyle’s work can be read.