His list of fashion innovations includes the trapeze dress, women’s tuxedo suits and safari chic, yet there was at least one style staple Yves Saint Laurent regretted not being able to take credit for. “Years ago he said, ‘I wish I had invented blue jeans,'” recalls one of his former models, Iman. “He always had it in the back of his mind to design for the modern woman.”
Even without denim, that’s exactly what Saint Laurent—who died in his Paris apartment on June 1 of a brain tumor at age 71—did, whether putting women in Russian-inspired peasant looks or art-print dresses. “He reinvented everything,” says embroiderer Jean-Francois Lesage, who worked alongside Saint Laurent throughout the designer’s career.
Born in Oran, Algeria, to French parents, Saint Laurent moved to Paris at 17 to design theater costumes but ended up working for Christian Dior. When Dior died suddenly in 1957, Saint Laurent—only 21 at the time—was named successor, launching his own line in 1961. Despite this success, the designer’s personal life was a tortured one: Throughout much of his life, he battled psychological problems, depression and substance abuse and was hospitalized for mental treatment. “But one day, I was able to come through all that, dazzled yet sober,” he said at the time of his 2002 retirement. In the years since, Saint Laurent told WWD, he felt “more at peace,” splitting his time between Paris and his home in Marrakesh, where his ashes will rest following a June 5 funeral service. “Though he has left us,” says Jean-Paul Gaultier, “his works will stay part of our lives.”