The 71-year-old fashion powerhouse passed after a long illness in Paris

By Peter Mikelbank
Updated June 01, 2008 07:30 PM

Yves Saint Laurent, the most influential designer in French couture in the last 50 years, died Sunday evening in Paris at the age of 71.

Sources tell PEOPLE that the designer fell ill and entered a Paris hospital last week, reportedly slipping into a coma Wednesday evening. The reclusive designer has been in worsening health for months. Word of his condition began to travel when he failed to appear in Montreal for a museum retrospective which opened last Thursday.

In confirming Saint Laurent’s death to French news chain LCI, the designer’s longtime partner Pierre Berge said, the designer “knew that he had revolutionized fashion, that he had revolutionized the second half of the 20th century. His designs accompanied the evolution of women.”

Born Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, in Oran, Algeria, on Aug. 1, 1936, the fashion designer is known for his sleek haute couture as well as his ready to wear styles, both of which embodied the best of French sophistication.

Saint Laurent first rose to prominence at the age of 22 when he succeed Christian Dior on the latter’s sudden death in 1957. Salvaging the designer’s collection, he is credited with continuing the house’s legacy as well as saving it from financial disaster.

Embroiderer Jacques Lesage, who worked with Saint Laurent for fifty years, beginning at Dior, said, “He invented everything. He reinvented everything.”

Following brief service in the French military, Saint Laurent opened the YSL label with partner Berge and quickly revolutionized French fashion, becoming the embodiment of the ’60s and ’70s with emblematic items including pop art designs and “Le Smoking,” an elegantly tailored feminine version of traditional men’s tuxedo wear.

In 1983, he became the first living fashion designer to be honored by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Long associated with muses Catherine Deneuve and Ines de la Fressange, Saint Laurent showed his last collection in January 2002 and has spent the past years involved with Foundation work.