PARIS — Yves Saint Laurent, one of the most influential and enduring designers of the 20th century, will be remembered for empowering women through his fashion, a long-time friend and associate said.
Saint Laurent died Sunday at his Paris home after a yearlong battle with brain cancer, said Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent’s business partner for four decades. He was 71.
“Chanel gave women freedom” and Saint Laurent “gave them power,” Berge said on France-Info radio. Saint Laurent was a “true creator,” going beyond the aesthetic to make a social statement, Berge said.
“In this sense he was a libertarian, an anarchist and he threw bombs at the legs of society. That’s how he transformed society and that’s how he transformed women.”
In his own words, Saint Laurent once said he felt “fashion was not only supposed to make women beautiful, but to reassure them, to give them confidence, to allow them to come to terms with themselves.”
Saint Laurent was widely considered the last of a generation that included Christian Dior and Coco Chanel and made Paris the fashion capital of the world, with the Rive Gauche, or Left Bank, as its elegant headquarters.
From the first YSL tuxedo and his trim pantsuits to see-through blouses, safari jackets and glamorous gowns, Saint Laurent created instant classics that remain stylish decades later.
Designer Tomy Hilfiger said he was saddened by the loss of such a legendary talent.
“He was a creative genius who changed the world of fashion forever,” Hilfiger said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
France’s Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Saint Laurent was a pioneer and a visionary who “contributed to France’s influence” in the world.
“Mr. Saint Laurent revolutionized modern fashion with his understanding of youth, sophistication and relevance. His legacy will always be remembered,” said Calvin Klein designer Francisco Costa.
Saint Laurent was born Aug. 1, 1936, in Oran, Algeria, where his father worked as a shipping executive. He first emerged as a promising designer at the age of 17, winning first prize in a contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat for a cocktail dress design.
A year later in 1954, he enrolled at the Chambre Syndicale school of haute couture, but student life lasted only three months. He was introduced to Christian Dior, then regarded as the greatest creator of his day, and Dior was so impressed with Saint Laurent’s talent that he hired him on the spot.
When Dior died suddenly in 1957, Saint Laurent was named head of the House of Dior at the age of 21.
He opened his own haute couture fashion house with Berge in 1962. The pair later started a chain of Rive Gauche ready-to-wear boutiques.
Saint Laurent’s simple navy blue pea coat over white pants, which the designer first showed in 1962, was one of his hallmarks. His “smoking,” or tuxedo jacket, of 1966 remade the tux as a high fashion statement for both sexes. It remained the designer’s trademark item and was updated yearly until he retired.
Also from the 60s came Beatnik chic — a black leather jacket and knit turtleneck with high boots — and sleek pantsuits that underlined Saint Laurent’s statement on equality of the sexes. He showed that women could wear “men’s clothes,” which when tailored to the female form became an emblem of elegant femininity.
Some of his revolutionary style was met with resistance. There are famous stories of women wearing Saint Laurent pantsuits who were turned away from hotels and restaurants in London and New York.
Saint Laurent’s rising star was eternalized in 1983, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted a show to his work, the first ever to a living designer. He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 1985.
But bouts of depression marked his career. Berge, who also was the designer’s former romantic partner, was quoted as saying that Saint Laurent was born with a nervous breakdown.
When Saint Laurent announced his retirement in 2002 at age 65 and the closure of the Paris-based haute couture house, it was mourned in the fashion world as the end of an era. His ready-to-wear label, Rive Gauche, which was sold to Gucci in 1999 for $70-million cash and royalties, still has boutiques around the world.
Saint Laurent had long been rumoured to be ill, and Berge said on RTL radio Monday that he had been afflicted with brain cancer for the past year.
“He no longer liked the world of today’s fashion … he said it didn’t understand him,” Berge said.
After retirement, Saint Laurent spoke of his battles with depression, drugs and loneliness, though he gave no indication that those problems were directly tied to his decision to stop working.
“I’ve known fear and terrible solitude,” he said. “Tranquilizers and drugs, those phony friends. The prison of depression and hospitals. I’ve emerged from all this, dazzled but sober.”
A funeral ceremony was scheduled for Friday at the Saint Roch Church in Paris, Berge said.