As a teenager in Oran, Algeria, a young Yves Saint Laurent would stage fashion shows for an audience of three: his mother and two sisters. His models, Bettina Graziani and Suzy Parker, were silhouettes cut out of magazines and glued onto cardboard, and his clothes were paper sketches cut meticulously to fit the figures — each outfit carefully accessorized with the pillbox hats, elbow-length gloves and top-handle handbags that were in vogue in the early '50s.
"It was like the rehearsal of his life," says Florence Müller, curator of "Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style," the traveling exhibition of the designer's life work that opened May 6 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The paper dolls are on display there for the first time ever in the United States, revealing Saint Laurent's considerable talents as an illustrator and ingenuity as a designer, despite standing less than 10 inches tall.
They share the first hall of the exhibition space with numerous photos of the designer and ephemera from his private life — a theme that carries on throughout the show — which traces his career from his early days at Christian Dior, the house he helmed from the ages of 21 to 23, through his rise as a couture designer and the success of his revolutionary ready-to-wear label, Rive Gauche. The omnipresence of Saint Laurent's bespectacled, instantly-recognizable face was an intentional move on the part of the organizers, demonstrating his celebrity in the '60s and '70s and his role as the first "rock star" designer.
"His intimate life and his professional life were very close to each other, and he was the first couturier to really act on both sides… being a couturier, but also an icon," says Müller. "Suddenly, the journalists, the press, the television, the magazines, they just wanted to have him — not just his creations, but him as a person." His lifestyle and social circle were as much objects of fascination as were his collections: there were nights at Studio 54 with Bianca Jagger and Anjelica Huston, evenings on the Île Saint-Louis with Marie-Hélène de Rothschild and trips to Marrakech with his muses Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise. All of this decadence and debauchery stood in polar opposition to the rarefied ateliers of Paris haute couture.
The designer's visibility and vulnerability are set in particularly stark relief when compared to the other major fashion exhibition that opened on the East Coast this week: the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between." Until this year, Saint Laurent had been the only living designer to be the subject of a Costume Institute show (his was held in 1983), but beyond this fact, the two designers could not be more different. Kawakubo shuns interviews, rebuffs celebrity and is rarely photographed; the walls of the Met exhibition are left entirely blank so as not to distract from the clothing. Meanwhile, at the VMFA, Jeanloup Sieff's infamous nude portrait of Saint Laurent is displayed a few feet away from a collection of the designer's couture looks. Distraction, in this case, is beside the point — Saint Laurent's personal life and the culture he surrounded himself with informed his designs and his designs in turn shaped the culture.
Particularly striking throughout the exhibit is how modern many of the designs seem: of the 100 pieces of haute couture and ready-to-wear on display, a significant portion could be worn today without a second thought. There is the iconic Safari dress worn by Catroux at the opening of the Rive Gauche boutique, a 1960 mink-trimmed crocodile jacket for Dior inspired by American bikers and a pair of le smoking tuxedos — a rive gauche suit and a couture dress — in a section dedicated to the theme of gender play that runs through the designer's work.
While the tuxedo was technically introduced at Saint Laurent's couture show in July 1966, Müller had good reason to include the ready-to-wear version. "The couture customers, they were a little bit older — they didn't understand," she explains. "They were not aware of the fact that it was so new and modern to have a tuxedo — they just wanted to have long evening gowns." The real moment le smoking burst into the popular imagination came later that fall, when the designer opened the doors of his Rive Gauche boutique and ingénues like Françoise Hardy embraced the style, quickly transforming it into the year's "It" item.
Alongside the pieces of pop culture and fashion history, the show also takes pains to recognize and celebrate the considerable behind-the-scenes work that went into bringing each garment to life. The second gallery features a wall of framed collection boards documenting every couture show from 1962 to 2002, each one containing sketches, fabric swatches, model names and reference materials for every look shown — a testament to the archival instincts of Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé, and a staggering visual representation of just a few of the 5,000 couture pieces the Fondation Pierre Bergé — Yves Saint Laurent has in its collection.
Also on view are collections of fabric swatches unearthed from the atelier following the designer's death in 2008, embroidery tests, toiles (cotton muslin prototypes of couture garments) and hat blocks used by milliners to craft the house's theatrical toppers.
"This gives a new perspective — it gives the idea that from the drawings to the garments and all the objects, you have a process, you have people who are working, like Abraham [a Swiss silk company with whom Saint Laurent collaborated closely], like the milliner — all these people who were working in the shadow."
After all, as Saint Laurent clearly understood, perfection is never as effortless or solitary as it seems.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Art's "Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style" opens to the public May 6, and is on view until August 27.
Disclosure: The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts provided my travel and accommodation to cover the exhibition.