Yves Saint Laurent: The Crossroads of Fashion & Art

Born in France in 1936, Yves Saint Laurent grew up in a villa by the Mediterranean, where he developed a passion for creating elaborate paper dolls, which evolved to designing dresses for his mother and two younger sisters in his teen years. When he was 17, Saint Laurent moved to Paris and enrolled at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture—the starting point for his professional career. While living in the City of Light, he met Michel de Brunhoff, then editor-in-chief of French Vogue, who introduced him to Christian Dior, for whom Saint Laurent worked as an assistant before ultimately being named as the house head designer after Dior’s death in 1957. At the time, Saint Laurent was just 21 years old. In 1960, Saint Laurent was fired from Dior after being drafted into the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence—a blessing in disguise. After his brief service, Saint Laurent, along with his lover Pierre Bergé, created his namesake house in 1961, ultimately becoming one of the most influential fashion designers of the second half of the 20th century—renowned for breaking boundaries and introducing new forms.

To celebrate the anniversary of Yves Saint Laurent’s first runway show, a series of installations conceived by the Fondation Pierre Bergé are on display through May at six of the most prestigious fine arts museums in Paris—the Pompidou, the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art, the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée National Picasso-Paris, and the Yves Saint Laurent Museum Paris. The exhibition, “Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées,” pays homage to the extraordinary creative talent of the late French couturier and the art that inspired him. “The unique dialogue that existed between Yves Saint Laurent and the myriad sources of inspiration he found in the fine arts, spanning a vast range of cultures throughout history, was a key component of the couturier’s ingenuity and boundless creativity,” says Madison Cox, president of Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent. “What more fitting manner to celebrate this 60th anniversary than to bring together these six renowned French cultural institutions—a noteworthy event in and of itself—and offer an incisive look at the work of one of France’s greatest fashion innovators alongside pieces from these esteemed museums’ permanent collections.”

Yves Saint Laurent (Courtesy of Bettmann/CORBIS)

Galerie d’Apollon, Musée du Louvre, Paris (© 2020, Musée du Louvre/Antoine Mongodin)

Saint Laurent, who strongly believed that the work of a couturier is very close to that of an artist, often credited his fascination with the arts as the primary inspiration for his work. “My weapon is my way of looking at my era and the art of my time,” Saint Laurent once revealed. This became apparent when Saint Laurent launched his Fall-Winter collection in 1965, presenting a series of dresses that paid respect to Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. Saint Laurent transformed Mondrian’s two-dimensional paintings into three-dimensional works, setting art into motion. This creative dialogue with artists continued throughout his career, with tributes to Serge Poliakoff, Tom Wesselmann, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Pierre Bonnard, Fernand Léger, Vincent van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso. “I am always influenced by painting: I owe my collection to American painters like Wesselmann and Roy Lichtenstein. All my dresses were lit up with landscapes, moons and sunshine,” said Saint Laurent of his July 1968 collection. 

(A gown created by Yves Saint Laurent for the Bal Proust, exhibited at Musée d’Orsay.)  

Each museum presenting “Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées” exemplifies this bond between the designer and art in unique displays. While the Musée National Picasso exhibits the artist’s paintings alongside Saint Laurent’s designs, the Musée d’Orsay displays dresses created by Yves Saint Laurent for the Bal Proust—a  party thrown by the Baron and Baroness Guy de Rothschild in December 1971 for which Saint Laurent created dresses for the Baroness de Rothschild and Jane Birkin, inspired by clothes from the Belle Epoque. “Different stories take shape from one museum to the next, allowing us to question the ideas and the myths around the couturier and artist Yves Saint Laurent: myths that touch the hidden depths of his being, but also his search for perfection,” says Mouna Mekouar, the co-curator of the show.

A green fox fur coat created by Yves Saint Laurent in 1971, on display at the Pompidou(© Yves Saint Laurent @Nicolas Mathéus)