Wear and Tear

Anne Hollander

  • Yves St Laurent: A Biography by Alice Rawsthorn
    HarperCollins, 405 pp, £20.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 00 255543 3

Alice Rawsthorn begins her book about Yves St Laurent with a dramatic prologue evoking a period late in the designer’s career, specifically the end of January and the beginning of February 1990. This opening functions as a sort of morality play, suggesting how we might view the story that follows. Yves St Laurent is introduced receiving a 13-minute ovation for his 1990 spring couture collection, a show comprising many dazzling examples of his homage to the clients, artists and predecessors who have inspired him for thirty years. At the finale, the 53-year-old designer mounts the runway looking fit and happy, and with unprecedented bonhomie he invites a select number of the adoring crowd to dinner in his own home, a huge Paris duplex laden with rare objects and hung with Goyas, Matisses and Warhols.

Very late that same night after the famous guests are gone, there’s a small fire in the bedroom, an accident of bad wiring. The celebrated designer instantly cracks up; he is helicoptered without delay out of 55 rue de Babylone to his exquisite château in Normandy and thereafter flown by private jet to his palatial hideaway in Marrakesh, accompanied by his pampered dog and perfect servants. Once there, he locks himself in one room, refuses to eat for weeks, drinks two quarts of bourbon a day and screams with fury at all who approach the door, especially those who remind him that he has a ready-to-wear collection to prepare in very little time. Anxious faces at the Paris shop. What to do? Curtain.

So that’s the opening theme, recapitulated at the end: public triumph and private torture, with the implied moral that a precious artistic gift must not be abused by unworthy means for gaudy but shallow ends. Fashion design naturally can’t measure up to High Art, and it also makes ferocious temporal demands. The fashion designer had better be ready with quick and canny strategies of visual style and jungle tactics in the marketplace. If it’s the contemplative arts of poetry and painting that he’s really fit for, he should stay off the catwalk and out of Babylon, or he will finally prove fit for nothing.

The foregoing doesn’t describe Rawsthorn’s main theme in this long, detailed book – that emerges later. As prologue, however, it comes very well just before her account of St Laurent’s childhood and youth, which indeed sound like an artist’s beginnings. Yves was a sensitive, well-bred boy given to solitude and reading, highly gifted for drawing, tormented by rough schoolmates in his native colonial city of Oran. The reader notes that though he was certainly intelligent, sensitive and studious, he seems to have been visually creative mainly in the theatrical dimension, loving movies and illustrations, inventing costumes, settings and scenes for a toy theatre and making Images of clothed models or characters. He didn’t do sketches of the city or the scenery, and his fantasy drawings weren’t of vehicles or cell structure. His youthful sensibility allied itself with that of Proust; his artistic ambition finally crystallised into stage design, and he has done a good deal of that during most of his career as a fashion designer.

Throughout her account, however, Rawsthorn maintains an opposition between St Laurent’s stage work and his fashion work as if between an obviously higher and a lower calling. She insists that St Laurent was ‘artistically and intellectually frustrated’ by the demands of fashion design, and always creatively nourished by his work for the stage; that in fashion he found ‘limitations’ that the stage did not impose; and she implies that he would never have felt frustrated in mind or talent if he had worked only in the theatre. It’s clear from this that she has never worked there. She also seems not to care much about it, since we get no idea from her book of what St Laurent’ frequent stage designs were like, despite all her conventional piety about how superior a creative channel it must be. It seems likely that, as a costume designer, St Laurent made an excellent couturier; his fancy-dresses for costume-balls were sumptuous, but not nearly so interesting as his clothes.

Design for the theatre is not one whit less frustrating than fashion design, and for some of the same reasons; but the long tradition of the stage borrows constant glory from the high arts of music and literature, and some serious painters have gilded the still subfusc métier of costume designer by doing sketches for stage productions. Most such works – by Chagall or Picasso, say, or Leonardo – are rightly admired as pictures by the artist in question, not as significant contributions to stage history. They always need radical transformation when real costumes are to be made from them; but they have served to raise the artistic prestige of stage design. Fashion has no such support. On the contrary, it bears a heavy weight of ancient discredit that still burdens many of those who work in it and write about it. There is therefore some real interest in finding a comfortable niche for the fashion designer, whose large presence on the cultural scene dates back only about a hundred and fifty years. Is he or she an artist? An artisan or a courtesan? Are they mountebanks or demons? Thieves or servants of the people?

For years the tailor and dressmaker (both of them men until the late 17th century) stayed firmly backstage in society, roughly in the same place as the chef – that is, celebrated only privately among private clients, who took the credit for the products of his well recompensed though publicly unacknowledged genius. Fashion was understood to be a sort of magic spell cast on the surface of social life, deployed by prominent men and women but cooked up in secret by faintly infernal adepts – to whom, of course, any dazzling creature could seem to have sold his soul, or more especially hers, as the real price of excessive material perfection. The large sums of actual money spent were perhaps felt to be mere metaphors for that underlying transaction.

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