Yves St Laurent: A Biography 
by Alice Rawsthorn.
HarperCollins, 405 pp., £20, November 1996, 0 00 255543 3
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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.

The smell of brimstone still clings to fashion, so it has to be kept down by being made frivolous, a dangerous ancient god disguised as a capricious elf, a teasing force to be uneasily propitiated if not quite believed in. Fashion is currently being tamed by efforts to chain it up in Cultural Studies, and there’s still the old placatory impulse to puff it up by calling it art, always with some sort of irony or apology. Thus modern fashion designers – often extremely rich and good-looking, often homosexual and nowadays often women – lack some fundamental credibility while they are being adored, a lack that makes many fashion reporters still long to report failures and miseries in connection with their glamorous successes. Most are writing in the spirit of gossip, not criticism, just as Rawsthorn does in her fashion-journalist vein. Elsewhere she cites Holly Brubach of the New York Times (an exception) comparing Yves St Laurent’s career to that of Paul Poiret, the brilliant, rich and famous couturier of the period leading up to the First World War and just beyond, roughly 1904-20, who died poor and unheard of in the middle of the Second.

Poiret, too, posed provisionally as an artist, knew Isadora Duncan and many modern painters and was a radical innovator, creating trousers and young-boyish looks for women, mid-calf-length skirts and long, sleek, uncurved torsos, all well before the famous between-the-wars modernisation of women. And, of course, he antedates all the post-World War Two designers who still take credit in one way or another for women’s recurrent sartorial rescue, by which they get ‘freed’ from ‘cumbersome’ clothing. It was said of Worth, the founder of haute couture, in the 1860s; and Rawsthorn naturally claims it again for St Laurent. It’s the one good action couturiers are allowed in serious retrospect, in contrast with the frothy achievements they are gushingly praised for in their heyday. This old liberation myth is based on the dumb idea that wearing fashionable clothing can never be other than wondrously demanding. Each of fashion’s great liberating moments is a sudden shift in the nature of its demands, never a diminution of them. The middle-aged always hate the change, the young always love it, voilà tout.

Fashion designers, those masters and mistresses of ephemera who have been allowed to achieve immense public fame ever since Worth, seem similar to theatre people, who were also long viewed with queasy mistrust and contempt as well as fascinated passion. Couturiers have an affinity with performers, many of whom have been their good friends – except that the works of Mozart and Molière stay and glow after their interpreters fade and die. The fashion designer’s work can only stay briefly – ‘Il faut pardonner la mode; elle meurt si jeune!’ Cocteau said – and be very artificially preserved. Like stage costumes, couturiers’ work is often embalmed in exhibitions that can be ghastly essays in necrophilia, unless a truly imaginative historical sympathy has conjured and mounted them.

Clothes do acquire a true immortality in works of art. Bronzino and Gainsborough, Titian and Ingres, Holbein, Hals and all the others have amply registered centuries of sartorial genius. But when we stand and stare amazed at those incredible garments, no great tailors’ names leap to mind. All those precursors of Yves St Laurent were unsung in their day, and so they remain. Do we care? The renown of the modern fashion designer suggests that we should; but not everybody can feel certain it matters.

Happily, fashion photography has now acquired as much aesthetic respectability as any photography, although this double process has been even more recent than the couturier’s public glory. The modern masterpieces of camera art that invent half the beauty of modern fashion, just as the painters did that of the old, now bear the names of both designer and photographer, along with that of the fashion-model. Fashion-magic has been personalised, and all the adepts get the credit due them, along with revenues inflated by a modern form of celebrity that is itself a formidable commodity, and yet another candidate for devil’s agent. And there, of course, is the rub. Some basic way to stay on the side of the angels still eludes fashion, the more notably intimate it gets with fame and fortune.

Yves St Laurent provides an excellent focus for this study, not of aesthetic trends in modern fashion, about which Rawsthorn’s book is fairly rudimentary, conventional and often self-contradictory, but of the modern fashion business, its development, its operations, its force, and their effects on the public and on its own personnel. Yves St Laurent is the name of a designer, and also of an international, multi-million-dollar fashion company, the success of which largely depends on the sale of perfumes and cosmetics that also bear his name. Rawsthorn undertakes to describe how such a man and such a company were fused and evolved together in the second half of this century, to demonstrate what a modern fashion designer actually is.

Her man is a good subject for this because he began work at 19 in 1955, during a crucial period after the Second World War when the invention and production of fashion was being revived in France, still following rules that had been in effect more or less since the turn of the century. The very young St Laurent helped significantly with this revival under ancien régime principles; but he went on to force changes in both the styles and the rules of fashion more than once in succeeding decades, always with a personal dedication that drained him while it enriched and glorified him, and which has preserved his credit as a serious man and an honest practitioner.

St Laurent is still at work at the age of 60. Rawsthorn makes him illustrate in his own person – in his feelings and responses, in his self-destructive afflictions and fantasies, in his differing methods of designing – just how the once comparatively small and exclusive business devoted to fashion has risen and swollen, broken apart and been efficiently reconstituted on a scale so huge that it reflects, with a certain commercial coherence, the incoherent life of the whole contemporary world. If his will, spirit and health hold up under the strain, St Laurent will doubtless be engaged in more of the now global fashion business’s evolutions. His talent for clothing design has proved, again and again under adverse and oppressive circumstances, to be more flexible and durable than that of many stars in the modern fashion firmament. ‘The important thing is to last,’ he has said; so he probably will, despite explosions.

But the truth is Yves St Laurent is only half himself. His other half, and the other half of Yves St Laurent the company, is the dynamic and powerful French business entrepreneur, Pierre Bergé. Nearly half of this biography is therefore rightly devoted to the life, struggles, feelings, fantasies, achievements and reputation of Bergé. The creation of YSL, the fusion of man and company, could not have occurred and still could not survive without the imaginative gifts and incessant practical endeavour of St Laurent’s lover and business partner, surrogate father and best friend, steady champion and exasperated guardian. Rawsthorn’s account of Bergé and his relations with the YSL enterprise – with the designer first, then with the business created and repeatedly re-created around him – is presented as a vivid drama, much more vivid than any revolution in the design of garments could ever seem to her.

Rawsthorn’s way of conveying the effect of all the fashion collections she didn’t personally see is to provide samples of the reviews, and remarks from other witnesses she interviews. The reader never gets the impression that she studied any photographs or any actual clothes, so as to describe them from her own responses. We would need that, if these events were to seem believable as important episodes in fashion history. But for Rawsthorn these and other fashion shows are really episodes in the epic of modern business; and for that, the reviews are far more important than the clothes. Judicious criticism of the clothes is always an impossible luxury for any reporter on the spot: there is no time. Fashion itself moves fast, but faster still is the movement of money.

If a designer gets bad reviews at a fashion opening and immediately bans the press from all future ones, he may seem to be indulging in a silly fit of pique, but in fact such a move is often a necessary business tactic. Commercial buyers may pledge huge sums in advance of a show, against the clothes they expect to order from it in large quantities, and thereby defray the heavy cost of producing the show itself. If the opening gets bad notices, those funds may be immediately withdrawn, and the whole fashion company may instantly fall into devastating debt. In fashion, a hysterical allergy to adverse criticism isn’t artistic vanity: it’s the haunting dread of swift financial lose.

Rawsthorn’s book displays the effects of, or perhaps the reasons for, her ten years as a writer for the Financial Times, both in London and as a correspondent in Paris. She unfolds her skilful narrative of Bergé’s adroit financial manoeuvring for YSL with an impassioned flair quite missing from her descriptions of clothes, costumes and fashion changes. Her illustrations are pictures of persons significant to YSL, man and company, with only a very few St Laurent sketches (no photographs of clothes) that give the eye a very minimal suggestion of what he actually did. There are, of course, other books with pictures of his work; and this book is best read with at least one of those at hand.

Rawsthorn’s emphasis on realms other than the visual is certainly right for this complex story. It’s mildly annoying, however, when her fashion summations are too pat and moralistic, and it’s a little more so when she makes a real mistake. She twice describes the famous Richard Avedon photograph now called Dovima with the Elephants as containing a ‘long, white dress’. It would seem that she never looked at the picture, since in it the model’s dress is black, and her pale sash isn’t white, either. This dress is a very early St Laurent, from his first period at Dior. One might have thought his biographer would want to study an early work in its most celebrated image, just for reference; but that eagerness didn’t seize her.

Her keenest attention bears on how the YSL empire came into being, making her shy, bespectacled subject into an international icon, and on what happened next, including what happened personally to Pierre and Yves and to everyone close to them. She is also minutely concerned with the background to this great success, the shifting economic and political scene in contemporary France on which Bergé came to move with such agility and so prominently for the sake of YSL and YSL. Pages are devoted to twists and turns in the notorious recent sale of YSL to Elf Sanofi, the government-supported French conglomerate, as well as to the many deals with numerous licensees and changing backers. It gradually emerges that this tougher half of her double hero is Rawsthorn’s real favourite, despite the book’s title.

Young Pierre, unlike young Yves, rebelliously quit his boring school and stuffy home in the provinces to seek literary fame and left-wing causes in Paris. It’s the bracing story of many a literary beginning, though it didn’t have that ending. Bergé lived the other half of the Artist’s Youth. Later on, as his business triumphs accumulated, he continued to believe himself more alert to art, artists and the political Left than akin to leaders of finance and industry. Bergé apparently felt like half an artist, needing completion by another half-artist. Indeed, it was not in any scruffy Paris milieu of artistic dedication that Pierre met Yves, but at the home of a society hostess, when Bergé was already the lover and business manager of the modish but bad painter Bernard Buffet. Yves was then the slim and fetching 21-year-old heir to the undisputed haute-couture throne of Christian Dior, who had just died of a heart attack at 52, leaving his famous fashion company in the lurch. Tender young Yves had taken over, because Dior had recognised him as the most salient talent on the design staff; but when he met Pierre, Yves was still very much on trial as the one person responsible for sustaining the firm’ crucial future. Dior had given haute couture its biggest postwar boost and was seen by some as the economic saviour of France. Had Yves the strength to catch up the standard and gallop onward? He certainly had, but not alone; and not under the name of Christian Dior.

That evening, the story goes, it was love at first sight. Bergé dropped the seasoned, worldly painter and attached the fresh, pure couturier, thus slightly changing the nature of the cultural entity he was destined to form and share in. Pierre’s own talents were certainly creative, and they at length emerged as non-artistic. Once in intimate union with a truly gifted second self unpropelled by worldly drives, Pierre could concentrate on making the resultant blend of imaginative energies into a prodigious success. The true fusion involved three – YSL the couturier, YSL the business and Pierre the energetic author of the enormous, complicated, delicate machine that combined them all.

Yves had always been a prince, long nurtured in family approval. After dutifully finishing school, he was eventually placed in his métier through the efforts of a watchful mother with good Parisian connections. Stage design wasn’t available; couture was; it didn’t matter much to anyone at the time, and Yves seemed well suited to either profession. But one great difference between the two emerges once the designer in either hits the top. Whereas design for the stage is negotiated show by show, and there can be helpfully uneven gaps between its periods of frantic effort, the haute-couture designer must produce two collections a year of about a hundred designs each, one in August and one in January, like clockwork. He can never stop at all unless he dies or retires – or fails. Dior began this work at the age of 40 and collapsed under the strain in 12 years.

Yves St Laurent found the life very hard when he became chief designer for Dior at 21, but twice as hard at 30, when, at YSL, he undertook to add two ready-to-wear collections each year in between the couture collections. By that time he had left Dior for military service, had broken down during basic training and spent months in hospital under questionable drug and shock treatments, had been cavalierly replaced at Dior by another designer during his absence, and on his recovery had been set up in his own haute-couture business, with capital heroically raised by his devoted Pierre.

After four years of struggle and increasing success, Bergé and YSL had the inspired idea of offering a mass-produced, lower-priced line of the designer’s original work for sale in its own boutique and designed separately on principles appropriate to factory production as well as to youthful taste. The clothes in the Rive Gauche boutiques, of which the first opened in 1966 (there are now hundreds worldwide), offered no embroidery and beading, fur and feathers, elaborate hand construction and precious fabric: but there was the St Laurent flair and vivid style, and maybe one could afford it. Within a year other French couture designers were following suit; and a rash of designers working only in ready-to-wear soon began sky-rocketing to success without doing haute-couture collections at all, although most had been trained in it. The prestigious Chambre Syndicate de la Haute Couture de Paris, which set the high standards and granted the licences for exclusive haute-couture businesses only, had also ensured them respectable venues for showing collections and good press coverage. Now new organisations were formed to look after the public-relations interests of ready-to-wear designers, so that prêt-à-porter could burst into organised fame and snag its own media prestige. France was saved again.

With the ascendance of French ready-to-wear, the haute couture gradually shrank in importance and size after its great revival from the late Forties to the mid-Sixties. It kept its high reputation but changed its position to one of even greater rarity and bizarrerie, and it was even more dependent on its perfume sales. Meanwhile ready-to-wear designers have gradually evolved into stylists, who don’t painstakingly invent each ensemble from scratch but assemble collections according to what the market seems to seek and the factories are prepared to make. This mass cookery has lately included some Yves St Laurent designs that have become components of the fashion patrimony, and wrongly seem to be up for grabs. YSL successfully sued Ralph Lauren for just such a theft.

A clever sense of what will sell, not training in clothes design, is now the prerequisite for success in ready-to-wear fashion; and new designers have come round to seeming more than ever like mountebanks and con-artists. St Laurent, who pioneered good ready-to-wear fashion, has not. He keeps his faith with the classic modern ideal for the design of clothes established by Chanel and some of her colleagues – an ideal essentially based on adapting the principles of menswear for women. The principles boil down to creating a fluid, multipartite envelope for the body, complementing its shape and movement and establishing a constant visible harmony between the body’structure and that of clothes without heavily emphasising either one. This masculine ideal, suitably analogised, reworked and disguised to fit feminine traditions, has in fact subtly opened further possibilities in the uses of womenswear for men. The ever-boyish Yves keeps earning his tide as Grand Old Man of fashion, while fashion as usual grows younger and newer each season. He’s become something of an integrative force, making sense of old and new together as this century winds down.

But the life of a designer creating four collections a year with only a few weeks between them is unbelievably taxing, since besides the constant work, it includes being on the public scene and within reach of the media on which success depends. Yves St Laurent, a delicate creature from the beginning, and damaged by his time in a brutal mental hospital, eventually became prey to drug and alcohol addiction, bouts of suicidal depression and physical disability, including obesity and sciatica. He has frequently shunned the public eye, and consequently been rumoured to be dead, or to have Aids or cancer; but he has reappeared, flourished and intermittently had a wonderful time. His alter ego has Been to that – until lately, when Bergé has begun to involve himself elsewhere, in difficult wheelings and dealings that don’t concern YSL. These have included his ill-starred direction of the Paris Opera, and a disastrous effort to set up another fetching young man as a couturier.

Rawsthorn’s dramatic prologue is entitled ‘The First Refusal’. By the end of the book the reader can see it as a prelude to Yves’s possible future rebellion against the entire set-up, out of a sense of being abandoned, isolated, enslaved, or maybe just colossally tired. His self-image as a tortured poet, a Baudelaire with a Proustian soul, might sustain him in retirement from fashion, and he might go back to his beginnings as a dreamy halfartist. He has, however, often said he couldn’t leave designing: ‘The couture would miss me too much.’And he’s right. When St Laurent leaves, fashion will lose a truly great talent, and a rare one of those who have helped it an inch or two towards an authentic honour of its own.

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