Home > Style > Fashion > Why Yves Saint Laurent was a moderniser ahead of his time
Why Yves Saint Laurent was a moderniser ahead of his time

A decade ago, an icon passed away two months short of his 70th birthday. He left behind a legacy so indelible, the world knows — oft-times wears — his name in an unmistakable three-letter acronym. His name is behind one of fashion’s most seminal and lucrative maisons. It is embedded to the title of museums dedicated to archive his life-long work, years after his passing. This immortal moniker is none other than Yves Saint Laurent.

More than just a designer, Monsieur Laurent was responsible for informing the way women dress up to this day. His timeless vision still lingers. This sartorial clairvoyance buoyed him as, arguably, the greatest godfather of modern fashion.

Sure, there may have been, and indeed there are still, design greats of creative ingeniosity — Cristóbal Balenciaga, Christian Dior and Rei Kawakubo among them — but there isn’t a day in the life of any woman reaching into her wardrobe that hasn’t been influenced by Yves Saint Laurent. There’s no familiar clothing piece he hasn’t pioneered: The black leather biker jacket, the skinny black sweater, the sheer chiffon shirt, fine art-inspired fashion and, of course, the Le Smoking-spurred tuxedo suit — all came to be courtesy of the trailblazer.

In celebration of what would have been his 80th birthday on 1 August, we take a closer look at how the YSL archives have shaped fashion into what it is today. Below, five prescient reasons why the work of Yves Saint Laurent is more relevant than ever.

(Main image: Pierre Olivier Deschamps; featured image: Getty)

1 /5

He made a case for diversity

The word “diversity” is practically a buzzword today. Sometimes thrown around meaninglessly, it loses its gravitas in favour of brand currency. Although, unfortunately, it doesn’t imply white-washing is completely eradicated in the fashion industry. At times like this, it’s worth reflecting on the designer who broke the mould with his fervour for diverse casting, as far back as the ’60s and ’70s.

Laurent controversially made waves for dubbing black models the likes of Iman, Rebecca Ayoko and Katoucha Niane as his muses. Naomi Campbell, who was his Rive Gauche campaign mainstay, divulged of how Laurent fought for her first French Vogue cover, radically making Campbell the glossy’s first-ever black figure on the cover. She said on news of his death in 2008, “He has done so much for people of colour.”

2 /5

He propelled androgyny into a revolution

When we talk about Yves Saint Laurent, it’s impossible to skirt around the Le Smoking. Debuted in 1966, the menswear-inspired tuxedo with a silhouette tailored for women was undoubtedly the master’s most iconic creation of all time. It was an instant hit right from the beginning for women who wanted to embody glam and edge. Seeping into the cultural consciousness at a time when second-wave feminists steered away from discussing fashion directly, it radicalised eveningwear and transformed the way women dressed up to this present-day. Made iconic by Bianca Jagger, she made it a point to wear a custom white Le Smoking for her nuptials, making a lasting statement that a woman can wear her trousers on her wedding day and her Studio 54 night out if she wants to.

3 /5

He freed the nipple before it was a hashtag

The ongoing campaign to #freethenipple spearheaded by the avocado toast generation proves the forward-thinking nature of Laurent’s penchant for the bare and sheer. In a period when miniskirts ran rampant, the designer let his YSL women rebel differently. His models would always go braless under gauzy organza blouses and feather-trimmed couture gowns. Much like the present-day’s movement, the decision was less about pleasing the spectator, and more about tipping back the balance in gender equality.

4 /5

He introduced streetwear and ready-to-wear

When his mentor Christian Dior abruptly died in 1957, 21-year-old Laurent was appointed to helm the Dior house. His first collection, the Ligne Trapéze was raved over, shooting him to instant fame. Yet, his following offerings, especially the Beat look inspired by Paris’s youthquake, was panned by critics. It consisted of predominantly black clothing  — including the storied mink-lined black leather biker jacket that went on to spur the Hedi Slimane-era Saint Laurent L01 and L17) — and subcultural undercurrents. The then-conservative Dior sacked him. They didn’t understand, it was streetwear ahead of its time.

With the help of Pierre Berge, his partner in life and business, Laurent started his own label a year later. He became the first couturier to market his ready-to-wear line, easing the art of dressing for women for decades to come.

5 /5

He spliced art and fashion

While the heaving quantity of collaborations between fashion names and art figures have surged into a new high these past few years, it was Laurent who pioneered the oeuvre of tapping the gallery into the runway. In the ’60s and ’70s, he plundered the works of Andy Warhol, Van Gogh and Georges Braque for design inspiration. Though it was his 1965 Mondrian collection — six modernist shift dresses boxed with primary colour squares — made in tribute to artist Piet Mondrian which made its lasting pop culture impact.

Never miss an update

Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest updates.

No Thanks
You’re all set

Thank you for your subscription.