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Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective Brings Fashion and History to Denver

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a preview of Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective in, of all places, Denver, Colarado. It’s the first ex
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Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a preview of

The exhibit begins with a portrait of Saint Laurent by Irving Penn, in which he is covering half his face, meant to project the inherent shyness, but also, emotional depth, of the designer, who passed away in 2008. This is followed by a sampling of his beautiful couture work for Christian Dior. Next, a really cool replication of his studio, followed by a room dedicated to his game-changing ready-to-wear for his namesake label, replete with the pantsuits and military jackets that introduced menswear to ladies, changing the way women would dress for generations after.

Next was a room filled with memorable couture looks worn by famous clients, from a gold look with a daring headpiece that Diane Vreeland wore to YSL’s first ever exhibit at the Met, to a Spanish-influenced look worn by Paloma Picasso, to a lovely frock and matching hat worn by his recently deceased muse Loulou de la Falaise. Another of YSL’s muses, actress Catherine Deneuve, had an entire room dedicated to her, which included an extremely jealousy-inducing closet filled with beautiful YSL dresses, suits, shoes and jewelry, much of which came from her Belle du Jour movie wardrobe.

Next, our senses were jolted by a series of nude portraits of YSL: never-before-seen outtakes from his infamous 1971 Jeanloup Sieff-lensed ad campaign for the designer’s first men’s fragrance. The photograph caused such a stir that many magazines requested to use it for free. Also in that room: looks from his scandalous WWII-inspired couture collection from spring/summer 1971, which was seen as disrespectful, but was ultimately reworked for ready-to-wear and a commercial success.

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Another room displayed select looks from collections inspired by specific parts of the world: Morocco, China, Spain, Africa, etc. Muller pointed out that YSL hadn’t actually been to most of those places and instead preferred to “travel inside his mind.” A room dedicated to his many art-inspired collections, in tandem with the aforementioned imaginary travel and WWII rooms, helped to frame the idea that his clothes were a consummate reaction to what was going on in the world, which makes them that much more important. Even the pantsuits and safari jackets reflected women’s evolving role in society at the time and perhaps even influenced it.

The final room held my favorite part of the exhibition: a wall covered floor-to-ceiling with more than 30 Le Smoking tuxedos spanning 40 years of YSL’s creations. This is juxtaposed with a display of gorgeous, over-the-top ball gowns, representing two distinctly different but equally glamorous ways of dressing up: two options that Saint Laurent gave women.

The most striking feeling I got from getting up close and personal with YSL's work was how relevant his clothing still is today, or, rather, how much designers are influenced by his work. The exhibition as a whole was more than just a retrospective of a designer’s work, but visual evidence of who Saint Laurent was and the impact he made, both on fashion and society. This is what prompted Heinrich, who saw the exhibition in Paris a little over a year ago, to get it to Denver. "When I saw the show for the very first time in Paris, I immediately loved it from the visuals to the design to the layout, but as well from the narrative of it," he said. "I called them and a few days later I flew over and I really tried to make the strong case that this Libeskind (Dainel Libeskind, the architect of the DAM) building is the right frame for this and quite honestly it looks so much more contemporary than it did in Paris."

It did look oddly contemporary and while Saint Laurent's deigns may not all have the overtly artistic quality of, say, Alexander McQueen's, they make more sense in an art museum than one might expect. "One of my favorite definitions of what is art is: what an artist does does," said Heinrich. "That’s very broad but it’s very clear that Yves Saint Laurent was an artist."

Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospectiveis on view from March 25, 2012 through July 8, 2012 at the Denver Art Museum.