a new saint laurent museum captures the work and soul of a tortured creator
From the very first smoking to his heartbreaking Rolodex, open to the finest feather-maker in Paris.
YSL dans son studio. Avec l'autorisation du Musée Yves Saint Laurent.
Before each Yves Saint Laurent runway show from 1962 to 2002, a driver would deliver a shoebox with a diamond and ruby-encrusted heart to Yves, who would attach it to the most special look of the collection. It was like a little secret "like" button. That strange, misshapen jewel, with its dangling raw ruby, is on view at the new Musée Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. The precious piece, displayed behind plexiglass, is an emblem for the kind of soul Saint Laurent put into his work – so much soul that he lived a tragically tormented life.
The new museum, which opens today in Saint Laurent's former haute couture atelier, pushes aside the haze of drugs and drama that sometimes clouds the designer's legacy to focus on his staggeringly innovative career. Like everything to do with Yves's work, the project was stringently overseen by his partner Pierre Bergé until his own death last month. Bergé's widower Madison Cox took it over the finish line.
Yves and Pierre were known as some of the most avid collectors of objets in the world, so it follows that their legacy would live on in a pristine hotel particulier finished with perfect details like a cream-colored guestbook and massive chandeliers tied with black ribbons. Most of their art was sold in a massive 2009 auction that was front-page news in France just a year after the designer's death, but you can see a favorite Picasso at the museum, as well as a quadruple Warhol of Yves's handsome young face.
The intention of the museum is to show how a couture and ready-to-wear house worked at the end of the 20th century. You can watch films with the key players of his universe discussing the shows, the relationship with the press, the sales process. Lavish examples of embroidery and costume jewelry are on display. And most compellingly, Saint Laurent's entire inner sanctum, his private office and atelier, is set up exactly the way he left it upon retiring in 2002. So there is the dog bowl that his succession of dogs named Moujik drank from. A Rolodex turned to "Lemarie Plumier," a particularly prized feather-worker. His tortoiseshell glasses. Parisians love this technique of creating a perfect postmortem mise-en-scene (see also: Coco Chanel's apartment, Brancusi's workspace). It's like: he's still here, you might be able to smell a whiff of création!
Clothing-wise, it's a tour of the greatest hits. Each piece shown was a prototype created for the runway, so the dresses are tiny, and exactly the way Yves envisioned them. The designs were later adjusted to fit the clients. The current exhibition, on view until next fall, starts with the four stars of Yves's influence: le smoking, the "Saharienne" tunic, the jumpsuit, and the trench (in leather). His very first collection is shown in some detail, along with all the sketches and notes that brought it into existence. Staring at his precise handwriting never gets old for people who care about this kind of stuff (you, if you're reading this far).
With the current discussions about cultural appropriation, it's interesting to revisit Yves's lavish "exotiques" pieces – his work that pulled from various cultures over the years. In 1970, he made a Chinese-style purple tunic and pants with a distinctly French perspective. Russian and African-inspired collections were seen as tour de forces in their time, but now would be problematic on the runway. Fashion is made to be reworked, and looking at these pieces will be valuable for fashion students thinking about their own relationship to the world at large. And they might pull from Yves's progressiveness too: he was one of the early champions of black models.
The show ends with a spooky dark room that examines the couturier's "aesthetic ghosts": Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso, Mondrian. These are the artists that drove him nearly to madness in his pursuit of beauty and form. The artist-inspired dresses are accompanied by a profoundly moving video of the speech Yves gave upon retiring. In it he says, "It's also to these aesthetic ghosts that I bid farewell. I've known them since I was a child, and I chose this marvelous métier in order to be with them."