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Yves St. Laurent: 'I Sell Happiness, Not $1,500 Dresses'

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Now it can be told: Yves Saint Laurent was a sissy when he was a kid. While all his young comrades in the provincial town of Oran in then-French Algeria were out expressing themselves by playing mumblety-peg and throwing rocks at dogs, Yves had more particular interests.

“My father was very fair,” Yves recalls. “He let me do what I wanted—and I had always wanted to be a couturier. I was terrifically attracted to costumes and the theater and fashion. They all go together, of course. I felt especially strongly about it since we were living in Algeria. When you’re in the provinces you develop an acute sense of what you’re missing. I used to do whole collections for myself.”

Today Yves is, of course, rich and famous, an inspiration for young people who point themselves at the dizzy heights of that very special universe known as haute couture. He is 38, composed, sure of his skills, living at the very top of the world of fashion. Just as not too many years ago Dior or Chanel were looked to for divine guidance, now it is Yves Saint Laurent. The fall collection he unveiled in July once again had rival couturiers chewing mournfully on their pins. And his “naive chemise”—a fluid version of the 1950s sack—is already being knocked off on this side of the Atlantic.

“Yves is the king of Paris,” wrote Women’s Wear Daily.

“The hand of a master,” sighed Nathalie Montservan of Le Monde.

“A one-man cult,” exulted Eugenia Sheppard.

“Perfection,” is the modest adjective chosen by Catherine Deneuve, who poses in ads wearing Chanel clothes but in real life wears nothing but Saint Laurent.

The Saint Laurent touch commands such respect (and such prices) that his is the only major fashion house in the world entirely owned by its two founding partners. La Maison Saint Laurent belongs to Yves and Pierre Bergé, his good friend, who keeps track of the business side of matters while Yves creates. Bergé is short where Yves is lanky. Bergé is dark and piercing of gaze where Yves is blond and myopic (his heavy-framed glasses are virtually a trademark). Pierre is loquacious and incisive where Yves is reserved and circumlocutory. In other words, Bergé is the perfect foil and counterpart for Saint Laurent. Together they built their business from nothing. The huge, two-floor garden apartment they share on rue Babylone on the Left Bank is one of the most sumptuous and exclusive in the city. The select few guests who cross its threshhold for an intimate Saint Laurent soiree dine in bright, lacquery 1930s decor, surrounded by expensive bibelots and paintings by Picasso, Léger, Matisse, Burne-Jones, Modigliani and, naturally, Warhol.

Nothing in his background prepared Yves for the summit of high fashion. The Saint Laurents, an honorable old Alsatian family, were generally men of law—one ancestor, a judge named Matthieu, had the distinction of presiding over the nuptial rites of Napoleon and Josephine. Sometime in the 19th century one of the branches took up residence in Algeria, where Yves was born in 1936. The problem for the sensitive, ambitious lad was how to get back to the mainland, where things were happening and life burned with a special fire. His passion for the world of the stage (he built himself a miniature theater so he could make his own sets) and his precocious talent in clothing design led him at 17 to enter a contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat. His design was a black, assymetrically-cut cocktail dress with a respectable décolleté. It won first prize. Little Yves, the shy beanpole from down south, came to Paris to claim his winner’s certificate and wowed all the jaded sensibilities around him with his effusion of original ideas. His cocktail dress was executed by Givenchy, but it was La Maison Dior where he decided to work. He was only 18 when he began.

“Dior took my mother aside,” Saint Laurent recalls, “and told her that one day I would be doing his entire collection.” It happened faster than anyone imagined. Two-and-a-half years later, when Yves was only 21, Christian Dior died. The spring collections were coming up and something had to be done fast. Yves, then artistic director of La Maison Dior, took pen in hand and whipped off one of the few entirely original concepts since Dior himself had come up with the New Look in 1947. The trapeze line, as Yves’s new approach was called, was an overnight sensation. From that point on, the names Dior and Saint Laurent were uttered in the same reverent breath. All that remained was for Yves to impose his name alone on fashion.

His separation from the House of Dior was a drama which became a news story itself. With the Algerian war raging, France’s youth were called to the colors, and one inevitable day the draft notice came for Yves Saint Laurent. In the tradition of Brigitte Bardot, and her husband Cheri, whose military service was suspended for reasons of nervous tension, Dior’s directors tried to do likewise for their most precious employee. The attempts to keep Yves’ manicured hands off grenades and machine guns set off a flurry of patriotic protests. Although officials came and took Yves away, they never got a uniform on his back: he instantly had a nervous breakdown. After sending him both to hospitals and prison cells, the military finally threw up its hands and released him. Trouble was, his job at Dior had been taken over by Marc Bohan. Like a newly-benched quarterback, Yves demanded freedom from his contract. The directors refused. Yves sued.

He won and was free; he was also broke and out of work. On optimism and borrowed money, he and Pierre Berge showed their first collection in a rented mansion near the Bois de Boulogne on Jan. 29, 1962. It was a huge success. La Maison Saint Laurent was on its way. Since that day they have added jewelry, sunglasses, wallpaper and home furnishing fabrics, shoes, scarves, sheets and towels, baggage, purses, sweaters and, of course, perfumes, to the original line of haute couture.

Yves and Pierre’s enterprise, grossing more than a million and a half dollars a year on haute couture alone, is the second largest house in the world, after Dior. Their women’s ready-to-wear operation has spread its 80 Rive Gauche shops from Kuwait to L.A. to Hong Kong, and had developed a volume of $8 million by last year. Men’s ready-to-wear, just now becoming a large-scale operation, is projected as a $20 million-a-year market.

The most striking outward sign of their success is the new Saint Laurent headquarters, a huge, four-story hôtel particulier on avenue Marceau, equidistant from the Seine, the Chinese embassy and the Crazy Horse Saloon. Housing 350 employees and workers in luxurious Napoleon III decor, it is certainly the most beautiful of its kind in Paris. As befits the man who handles the purse strings and has to impress clients, Bergé has a chauffeured Rolls and a huge corner office facing the avenue, with his desk directly underneath a bigger-than-life Andy Warhol portrait of Yves. Yves himself commands nothing more than a modest cubicle facing out on the garage courtyard. It is of no importance to him—he can design virtually anywhere, and spends most of his time in the studio with his models, anyway. The models are of paramount importance and he chooses them all personally. Right now he has six full-time: three French, one Chilean, one Yugoslav and one American. He never misses an opportunity to sound them out on his designs.

“A good model can save you ten years of work,” he says. “I need a woman to try my things on. I work it out with her, I don’t ‘create.’ That’s an idiotic word, anyway. Over the years I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who’s wearing it. Second most important is the fabric. I had started out thinking that the drawing was the most important thing. Now I see that fashion is a sort of art of living. The woman should feel at ease and happy in her dress. It is a philosophy of happiness.”

This concern for the woman more than for his intellectual concepts is typical of the maturing Saint Laurent. “He loves women,” says Loulou de la Falaise, one of his assistants. Saint Laurent once summed up his working philosophy by the straightforward observation: “It’s important for me to have pretty lady friends.”

Still shy and reserved despite his wealth and power, Saint Laurent talks about his trade with surprising difficulty; he makes a conscious effort to frame his thoughts in precise terms, like an artisan. The result is a hesitant monologue, broken by many silences and gestures of impatience.

“Haute couture is obviously the highest point of perfection in the trade,” he says, “but it is evident that the future doesn’t belong to haute couture. It is one of the last trades where everything is done by hand. It ought to be saved, if only for that reason, but I don’t know if it can go on existing. It’s not even certain that the basic materials will be there. Prices are going up and up. Soon there might not be any silk or wool, or even cotton. Everything is being replaced by synthetics.”

The prices commanded by Saint Laurent originals (nothing sells for less than $1,500) are only, after all, a reflection of the vertiginous rise in the cost of raw materials and labor everywhere. Saint Laurent refuses to use synthetics, and the 115 seamstresses in his ateliers work strictly as their great-grandmothers did in the days before Isaac Merrit Singer—there is scarcely a sewing machine in the whole avenue Marceau building. So what is the future of fashion, if Her Serene Highness Grace Kelly, Madame Onassis and other international monied women are the only ones who can indulge themselves in Saint Laurents without a second thought? Saint Laurent has an intelligent and heretical idea—things won’t go out of fashion any more!

“I’m beginning to understand that the important thing is to give the woman a basic set of clothes. Things that won’t have to change. I think that men today have arrived at a good balance in their dressing. What women should do now is constitute themselves a wardrobe, just like men.”