Yves Saint Laurent, 1964 © Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent / Maurice Hogenboom


Pierre Bergé, the former partner of the late Yves Saint Laurent and president of the Foundation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, skipped London and opted to host the exhibition at The Bowes Museum in County Durham, a three-hour train ride from the capital. “The Bowes Museum is a natural destination given its exceptional work with fashion and textiles; the museum and its location also clearly reflects Saint Laurent’s, and my own, passion for inspiring, timeless places,” says Bergé on his decision to hold the exhibition there. Joanna Hashagen, curator of fashion at the Bowes, called the exhibition a great moment in the museum’s history and for fashion showcasing in the UK, and described it as “an innovative display that will introduce a dialogue between the designer’s body of work and The Bowes Museum’s collection.”
The exhibition will feature 50 of Yves Saint Laurent’s finest work, as well as his tenure as creative director of Christian Dior, many of which have never been seen outside of Paris. On display will be the designer’s archives, which will include pieces from the Russian Collection, the Mondrian dresses, the Safari jacket and the famous Le Smoking tuxedo. Saint Laurent’s work was often hailed as groundbreaking and empowering to women while still being able to mix fashion and art together. The Algerian-born designer had an extremely illustrious career starting from a young age.
It all started when Saint Laurent entered the International Wool Secretariat in Paris in 1953 where he subsequently won. The great designer, Hubert de Givenchy, then went on to make his designs.
Upon wining the prize, the young designer then met Michel de Brunhoff, the editor of French Vogue at the time. After successfully showing him his designs, the editor then ended up publishing many of them, which caught much attention. This then led to the young Saint Laurent being introduced to Christian Dior who hired him on the spot. Christian Dior saw the innate talent that Saint Laurent possessed and made the young man his successor. After the sudden death of Dior from a heart attack, Saint Laurent found himself catapulted to the head of the major fashion house at the young age of 21.
There was trouble in paradise between the fashion house and Saint Laurent, and after three years as artistic director of Christian Dior, the two bitterly separated. Following his dismissal, the designer suffered a nervous breakdown, which triggered a struggle with mental illness and drugs. Returning to Paris in 1962 and with the help of his lover Pierre Bergé, he created his own fashion house. Saint Laurent met and fell in love with Bergé in the late 1950s and built a personal and business relationship with him. Both had a significant role in building the YSL empire, Saint Laurent was the artist while Bergé was the manager who was responsible for keeping the business moving. The romantic tale of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé is a tumultuous, passionate, complex, decadent, drug-laced love story. Bergé was the one who kept Yves Saint Laurent on track and kept him stable, focused and creative during dark times. Their love was a turbulent one but at the end of the day it was no secret that both needed one another and together they were a force to be reckoned with.


Yves Saint Laurent in his studio, 5 avenue Mareau, Paris, 1986©Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent / Guy Marineau

They separated as lovers in 1976, but they remained friends and business partners even until Saint Laurent’s retirement in 2002 and his death in 2008. It seems that the two were truly soulmates. During Saint Laurent’s funeral, Bergé said “But I also know that I will never forget what I owe you and that one day I will join you under the Moroccan palms” as the designers ashes were scattered in Marrakech, Morocco, in the Majorelle Garden, that was owned by the two since 1980 — a testament of true love. And today Bergé, the man behind the latest exhibition, is still keeping the flame going and making sure that the legacy of Yves Saint Laurent lives on after all these years.
There have been many firsts that Yves Saint Laurent has contributed to fashion. He is one of the few designers to have truly revolutionised the fashion world with his bold, powerful and timeless designs. There was the famous Mondrian dresses in 1965 which showed how fashion and art could be fused together as the great designer gave the idea of how the body is a canvas with its artwork and block colouring. The Le Smoking tuxedo in 1966 is seen as one of the greatest fashion moments in history when the designer was the first to introduce men’s tailoring for a women’s body. Women in tuxedo suits by Saint Laurent literally changed the way women dressed forever. It was the perfect example of the masculine to feminine aesthetic, which Saint Laurent first started. He did not just liberate women but gave them power. The Safari jacket debuted in 1968 and made him one of the first designers to have utilitarian wear made for the catwalk. This was a significant moment as it was when sportswear was first introduced in a modern woman’s wardrobe. Yves Saint Laurent’s Russian Collection in 1976 was inspired by the costume designs for Sergei Diaghilev’s early 20th-century Ballets Russes, — it is said to be one of the greatest fashion collections ever at the time. Saint Laurent was not all about the couture line, he also focused a lot on RTW, with his label, Rive Gauche, making high fashion accessible to many women and empowering them with his strong forms. With all these on display, the exhibition will showcase a rich archive of his work and the legacy that he has solely built which is still prominent in today’s world.
Olivier Châtenet, a fashion designer, creative director, fashion consultant and avid Yves Saint Laurent collector — boasting a 3,000 strong catalogue of the designer’s work from 1965 to 1980 — believes that the exhibition is important, as it will show “a synthesis of what is YSL style and the base of the modern women’s wardrobe.” This again proves that Yves Saint Laurent is the man behind the quintessential elements of the modern woman’s wardrobe ranging from the pea coat and trench coat to the pantsuits and jumpsuits that he created. Châtenet previously worked with the Foundation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent on numerous occasions. He was also the man behind the fashion for the Bertrand Bonello movie Saint Laurent where he was the film’s fashion and historic consultant. This was also where he provided 600 pieces from his personal YSL pret-a-porter collection for the work.
“As a designer I was always interested in collecting vintage for design sources, I quickly realised that his designs were perfect, out of time in terms of style,” says Châtenet on his fascination with collection Yves Saint Laurent pieces who started collecting them since the beginning of his fashion career in the early 1980s and found some of his pieces at the famous Parisian market Marche aux Puces de Clignancourt. According to Châtenet, Yves Saint Laurent is just as important today as he was then.

“ He shaped the fashion industry because he was a visionary in a sociological way. He understood first what women needed at the time, independence and power, which means masculine and feminine, and also the significance of youth and sexuality. In that sense, he remained the most influential designer of his time. ”

“Yves Saint Laurent was the first to see what would be fashion for decades, and his designs are still modern today. That is why he was the absolute leader of his time. In terms of style, his influence is still clearly perceptible today,” declares Châtenet. Yves Saint Laurent was a revolutionary designer who brought women a sense of social empowerment whilst retaining their femininity and like Pierre Bergé said, “If Chanel gave women their freedom, it was Saint Laurent who empowered them.”
It seems women would be eternally grateful to this man whose legacy lives on, making this retrospective exhibition not just an homage to the designer, but a celebration of female empowerment.