By Louise Lague
December 06, 1993 12:00 PM

AT THE CLOSE OF HIS MOST RECENT fashion show, in October, Yves Saint Laurent stepped onto the runway to take his bows before a cheering Paris crowd. Wearing an impeccable white suit but looking near the point of collapse, he walked uncertainly toward backstage, stumbled and bumped into a wall. Those present would recall his vacant smile and slurred speech as well-wishers then rushed to surround him . At 57, Yves Saint Laurent seemed like a man pleased by the adulation, yet barely able to stand.

For much of his life, in fact, the onetime “Little Prince” of Paris fashion has been an enigma. “He is charming, adorable, funny,” his friend actress Catherine Deneuve has said. Yet he “was born with a nervous breakdown,” said his longtime partner and former lover, Pierre Bergé.

Not that some anxiety isn’t warranted, given the state of haute couture. Profits from his famed fashion house, battered by the worldwide recession, had declined by 44 percent in 1992 over the previous year. YSL was purchased last January by the state-owned French oil conglomerate, Elf Sanofi. Suspicions of insider trading surfaced when it was learned that Saint Laurent and Berge had sold off some of their own stock just before the next earnings report was made public. Each man came out of the sale of the house with $72 million, but results of a preliminary investigation of the stock sale are still pending.

Then, in September, came the French publication of Yves Saint Laurent, a tactful but revealing 454-page biography by Le Monde fashion journalist Laurence Benaim, 31. Selling briskly in France, the book details Saint Laurent’s illustrious career, but also describes his stormy, 35-year relationship with Berge and his own longtime problems with drugs, drink and depression.

Today, except for seven servants and his dog, Moujik III—the third in a line of identical bulldogs—”Yves seems completely alone,” says an acquaintance. “At night he goes to visit his neighbors, because he can’t stand

being by himself. He seems sad, desperate.”

Saint Laurent has said he never follows the news and may not have read his own biography—although Berge has railed against it. Saint Laurent once quoted Proust to explain his insularity, stating that “nothing can interest the creator but his own work.”

For Saint Laurent, designing has been his life’s obsession. Born in Algeria in 1936 to a wealthy French family, Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent was the adored eldest of three children and the only son of an insurance company manager, Charles Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, and his socialite wife, Lucienne. At 4, he was already making puppet clothes and critiquing his mother’s ensembles. In school, he found himself brutally ostracized by classmates who beat him or locked him in bathrooms because, as he recalled for the newspaper Le Figaro, “I wasn’t like the other boys. My homosexuality, no doubt.”

Traumatized, Saint Laurent found refuge in his own dream world, sketching dresses even during school hours. His revenge, he told Le Figaro, “was to tell myself nonstop, ‘One day you will be famous.”

In 1954, at 18, Yves left for couture school in Paris, where he won first prize in a design contest and attracted the attention of Christian Dior, head of Paris’s most successful fashion house. Within a year, he was named one of Dior’s assistants, and when Dior died suddenly in 1957, Saint Laurent, then only 21, was named his successor.

In 1958, Saint Laurent presented his first collection for Dior, which featured the wildly successful trapeze dress. That same year, at a dinner party, he met Berge, a shrewd but arrogant entrepreneur six years his senior. “Bergé is a talent scout,” says a onetime associate in the perfume business. “Pierre has an atrocious temper, but a definite commercial genius.”

Yves, now the hot young star of Paris couture, began suffering the pressure of early success. “His youth ended in 1958,” said his mother. Added a friend from that era: “That’s when he began to take tranquilizers and drink, to cram himself full of stuff in order to hold up.” The military draft beckoned in 1960, a horrifying experience that “for me, was like school all over again,” Saint Laurent said. He landed in a military hospital for two months, and by the time Berge rescued him, Marc Bohan had taken his job at Dior.

Bergé and Saint Laurent set up housekeeping in a Left Bank apartment and in 1961 opened the house of Saint Laurent. Soon the designer was again charging from one success to another, introducing the nautical look and even tuxedos for women. Marlene Dietrich, Farah Diba, wife of the Shah of Iran, and the Duchess of Windsor all happily paid upwards of $5,000 for his frocks. He introduced his first perfume, Y, in 1964, and followed it 13 years later with Opium, still a best-selling perfume internationally. In the late ’60s, a group of Saint Laurent female staffers were thrown out of New York City’s Plaza Hotel for wearing pantsuits to lunch. Women everywhere giddily followed their fashion example, eventually forcing restaurants to give in.

But while Saint Laurent’s creative genius was winning applause, his private life became increasingly reckless in a decadent era. In Paris clubs, both gay and straight, and the new house he shared with Berge in Marrakech, Morocco, he needed constant fixes of “stimulants, theater and narrow escapes,” writes biographer Benaim. Yves’s friend and muse Loulou de la Falaise recalled him teasing Pierre for being his tormentor, saying, “Oh, he’s going to beat me,” an idea Yves found exciting. “They were a real couple,” said de la Falaise. “I never saw one as close or as passionate.” Another associate remembers a party in the 1960s when “Berge slapped Yves across the face. It seems he thought Yves had spent too much time on the dance floor with a woman.”

For Saint Laurent, Bergé “was like a father, a nanny, a trainer with a horse that didn’t run very well,” recalled the Countess Boul de Breteuil, a Marrakech friend. “He dominated him, pushed him. When Yves said, ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I’m not hungry,’ Pierre said, ‘Work, eat.’ Yves needed that.”

In 1975, Saint Laurent introduced a triumphant collection of lean, largely black, androgynous clothing. Behind the scenes, though, a personal drama was unfolding. A few months after the show, Pierre moved out of their Paris apartment, loosening their bond without totally severing the relationship. “There was alcohol, then cocaine, then tranquilizers,” Pierre said in the Ben-aim biography. “Yves had started on a self-destructive course that I didn’t want to witness.”

While Pierre aggressively expanded the business into sunglasses, luggage and even sheets and towels, “Yves never came back to life,” said de la Falaise. “He saw himself as Maria Callas abandoned by Aristotle Onassis.”

His revenge, according to de la Falaise, was “the brilliance of his talent; to make collections that were more and more beautiful.” The lean black look made way for a brilliant Russian-themed collection in 1976, inspiring a worldwide folkloric trend, followed by a vibrant Spanish and Chinese collection. “The more Yves suffered, the more extravagant his colors became,” explains Benaim.

But by now, in addition to cocaine, alcohol and prescription tranquilizers, there were shots of speed. In 1977, the fashion world whispered that Yves was actually dead, and an exasperated Berge would walk reporters past the designer’s office door and say, “Yves, move your arm so we know you’re alive.” Once, Saint Laurent dried out at the American Hospital, near Paris, with his socialite friend Betty Catroux. She recalled, “Yves would pass me notes that said, ‘Quick! Let’s get out so we can start again!’ ”

After the December 1983 retrospective of his work at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Saint Laurent became a recluse who kept company almost exclusively with his entourage and saw an analyst five times a week. But the drug-taking apparently didn’t stop. One journalist remembers that for a photo shoot in Marrakech in the mid-80s, “Yves literally had to be held up.”

At 48, Saint Laurent received the French Legion of Honor. That same day, according to his biography, he finally discussed his homosexuality with his father. “Papa, you know what I am,” he said. “Maybe you would have preferred a real boy who carried on your name.” His father reportedly said, “It’s of no importance, my dear.”

In 1990, Saint Laurent won acclaim for his “Hommages” collection, dedicated to his heroes, including Proust, Dior, Callas, Chanel and Deneuve. Three months later he was holed up in his Marrakech villa, his head shaved, drinking two bottles of whiskey a day and painting on the walls. “He was demented,” said his sister Brigitte. Three weeks in a psychiatric clinic followed, and some friends believe that Saint Laurent has been incapable of functioning well since that breakdown. “I think what caused the tragedy is a broken heart,” suggests one fashion writer. “Yves has had boyfriends now and again, but he’s still in love with Pierre.”

Yves’s personal fragility, in a way, parallels the decline of high fashion. The new world of disposable chic and barely-there clothes is something, Saint Laurent said in an interview last summer, that “I don’t understand at all. It’s a lot of horrible things and very little fashion.”

These days, he said, he feels “a little sadness. A wonderful fairy tale is coming to its last page, [especially with] the sale of the house.” Still, as he told Benaim last spring, “I’m taking fewer pills, life appears different, more joyous. I had a real life, I realize it now, and I regret nothing.”

What remains to be seen is the path that Saint Laurent will take now. While Elf Sanofi, the new owner of his company, assumes control of the fragrance business, he and Berge will continue to run the ready-to-wear and haute couture lines until 2001—for reported salaries of $2 million each per year—despite rumors that Saint Laurent is relying more and more on assistants for help with the collection.

Yet even in the face of his business troubles and fears for his health, there are many—including Benaim—who seem optimistic that Saint Laurent has put aside his demons and will listen once again to his muse. His next show is set for January, and as Benaim says, “He is a man of theater who always prepares surprises.”