In summer 1977 the novelist Anthony Burgess made a special trip to Paris from his Monte Carlo home to interview Yves Saint Laurent for the New York Times magazine. Once the interview was over, Burgess, who was fascinated by palmistry, asked Saint Laurent to show him his hands. Most people’s left and right palms have a different pattern, but this time Burgess saw something truly unique – Yves’s palms were virtually identical. “His career had been worked out in the stars,” Burgess wrote later.
Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent was born on 1 August 1935 at the Jarsaillon Clinic in Oran, the second largest city of Algeria. From the very first day, Yves became the darling of the family, especially his mother whose love for her son “has always been something very strong and very special”. His childhood was divided into two world: the blissful and secure one at home where he would spend hours sketching, writing and staging performances in his toy theatre and the world of abuse and bulling that existed at school. No matter how bad things were for him, the boy chose not to tell his parents about the horrors of school. Instead he’d rush home to yet again be absorbed in his art and imaginary world of beauty, theatre and fashion that came alive from the pages of Vogue and his own drawings.
When he was 17, Yves saw a competition for young fashion designers in Paris-Match organised by the Wool Secretariat and decided to take part. The winner would get a chance to work for one of the competition judges including Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain. A letter the came a few weeks later brought the most wonderful news: Yves’s sketches of a coat, a dress and a suit won the 3rd prize and he was invited to Paris for an award ceremony. Although Paris saw Saint Laurent as an outsider, he was incredibly happy to be there and discover the city of lights. Before leaving for Oran, Yves was introduced to Michel de Brunhoff, editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue who saw great potential and suggested that Yves finished school and then came to Paris for one of the fashion courses.
Saint Laurent followed his advice and enrolled in the Chambre Syndicate course in September 1954. That autumn he also re-entered the International Wool Secretarial competition, won the first place and three out of seven prizes. A few months later he contacted de Brunhoff again and the two met again. As soon as Saint Laurent left, de Brunhoff picked up the phone and called Christian Dior asking him to see the young boy as soon as possible. Yves didn’t know it yet, but the sketches he showed to the editor-in-chief didn’t just make an impact on Bruhnoff, he found them astonishing. Yves’s designs looked exactly like the new “A Line” collection that Dior had prepared for his spring 1955 haute couture collection and privately showed to de Brunhoff that very morning.
Yves Mathieu-Saint-Laurent was offered a job on the spot. He was 19 years old. The job offer came from Christian Dior himself.
The world of Dior was Yves’s element. It was elegant, inviting and reminded him of the wonderful and happy times spent at home with his family. His first task was to decorate the shop, but he was quickly moved to designing accessories and then submitting sketches for the couture collection and although Dior was distant with his young employee, he recognised and respected his talent and decided to include one of Yves’s designs in his new collection. A dress was then chosen by Harper’s Bazaar and featured in “Dovima with Elephans” editorial photographed by Richard Avedon.
In 1957 Dior chose not just a few, but thirty-five of Saint Laurent’s designs. “Yves is the one who will succeed me” the designer said to his mother a few weeks before he left for Italy where he had a heart attack.
Then came September 1960. Yves Saint Laurent had to join the army for two years. The situation was so wrong in so many ways that Yves only lasted for 19 days before he was admitted to a military hospital with a nervous depression and then sent off to Val-de-Grâce, a mental hospital in southern Paris. The days at the hospital were a blur. Overdosed with tranquilisers, treated with electric shock, surrounded by manic and violent patients and isolated from his family and friend, Yves was frightened and alone. The only thought that kept him alive was his dream of getting back to Dior quarters, but Saint Laurent’s illness was too much for Dior and Yves was quickly replaced with a thirty-four-year-old Marc Bohan who didn’t possess the magic of Yves Saint Laurent, but was able to produce solid collections close to Dior’s traditions.
Eventually everyone gave up on Yves. Everyone but Piere Berge who continued fighting for Saint Laurent until one day he had him released from the hospital. After a long and much needed recovery process, the two decided to launch Yves Saint Laurent couture house.
The timing was perfect. The world was hungry for something new, young and fresh, a new designer who would become a star. Yves Saint Laurent and his perfect, exciting and impeccably made clothes were the ideal choice.
From the incredibly beautiful couture collections to ready-to-wear Rive Gauche, Yves Saint Laurent made women fall in love with his clothes over and over again.
What truly made him different from other fashion designers was his versatility and ability to be ahead of his time and yet designing clothes that were timeless.
Fashion was his dream world, but it was also the place full of demons. The most famous designer in the world was suffering from depression and had to combat addictions.
On 1 June 2008 Yves Saint Laurent fell asleep forever. His ashes were scattered in Majorelle Garden in Morocco, a place where he could always find peace and inspiration.
“Yves Saint Laurent invented everything, revisited everything, transformed everything to the service of a passion, to let woman shine and to free her beauty and mystery”
Photo sources: Yves Saint Laurent at his apartment on the rue Babylon photographed by Duane Michel, Yves Saint Laurent holding a sketch on 11 December 1954, Yves Saint Laurent at Christian Dior 1957, Dovima et les elephants - evening dress by Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955, photographed by Richard Avedon, Yves Saint Laurent and the "Trapeze" collection at Maison Christian Dior 30 December 1958 photographed by Sabine Weiss, Yves Saint Laurent at the Christian Dior studio photographed by Mark Shaw and with his mother Lucienne Mathieu-Saint Laurent in 1957, Yves Saint Laurent & Pierre Berge photographed by Pierre Boulat in 1961, Yves Saint Laurent at his first own couture show in 1962 photographed by Pierre Boulat, Yves Saint Laurent with Victoire Doutreleau in 1962 photographed by Pierre Boulat, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge at the rue Jean-Goujon in 1961 finalising the "YSL" photographed by Pierre Boulat, Yves Saint Laurent with Carla Bruni in 1988 photographed by Jean-Marie Perier, Yves Saint Laurent at his studio, Yves Saint Laurent cork board in the studio at 5 avenue Marceau photographed by Alexandra Boulat in 2002, Yves Saint Laurent memorial at Jardin Majorelle, unless noted all photos are from Yves St Laurent and Yves Saint Laurent