African arts, culture + politics

Icon: Yves Saint Laurent


(ARISE magazine, issue 15) On June 6 2008, a star-studded cast of mourners assembled at Paris’s Saint Roch church to pay tribute to Yves Saint Laurent,  “the last of the traditional French couturiers” and one of the greatest names in fashion history. John Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood and Claudia Schiffer rubbed shoulders with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Saint Laurent’s former muse Catherine Deneuve and his 95-year-old mother – as always, wearing one of her son’s coveted creations.

Yet Saint Laurent’s final resting place was not to be a conservative Paris cemetery. Instead his ashes were scattered in the desert winds of Morocco, in recognition of the deep influence Africa had on the designer’s work and personal life – from his childhood in the Algerian city of Oran, to his two decadent homes in Marrakech, to which he regularly retreated in later years.

Boy wonder

Oran was, Saint Laurent later picturesquely described, “a cosmopolis of trading people from all over, and mostly from elsewhere, a town glittering in a patchwork of all colours under the sedate north African sun”. Yet despite being born, in 1936, against such a scintillating backdrop and into a wealthy, privileged family, Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent had a difficult time growing up in Algeria. Bullied for being shy, sensitive and gay, he retreated into the transformative world of fashion, designing clothes for his mother. “Whenever they picked on me, I’d say to myself, ‘One day you’ll be famous’,” he later remembered. “That was my way of getting back at them.”

At the age of 17, Saint Laurent moved to Paris and scooped first prize in the International Wool Secretariat contest. His winning asymmetrical cocktail dress design secured him a meeting with Christian Dior, who instantly hired the young designer. Yet despite his natural talent, Saint Laurent’s ascension came about sooner than anyone expected when Dior died in 1957 and the 21 year old took over as head designer at the US$20million-a-year fashion house. In his first collection he introduced the ‘trapeze’ dress. The fashion world went wild. “Saint Laurent has saved France,” declared Le Figaro.

In 1960, Saint Laurent unveiled his fifth collection under Dior. The ‘chic beatnik’ look was inspired by Rive Gauche (Left Bank) bohemians and featured alligator motorcycle jackets, mink coats with jumper sleeves and turtlenecks under tailored flannel suits. It left the world of haute couture scandalised. Things went from bad to worse when Saint Laurent was conscripted into the French-Algerian war. Within three weeks he suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to a military hospital. His rescue came in the form of Pierre Bergé, an art dealer he had met at a party. Bergé, who later became Yves Saint Laurent’s partner in life and business, took the frail designer home and nursed him back to health.

African air
By then, however, Saint Laurent had been replaced at Dior by his former assistant Mark Bohan. When the fashion house refused to reinstate the designer, Bergé successfully sued for £48,000 and convinced Saint Laurent
to break out on his own. In 1961 the pair launched the first Yves Saint Laurent collection, featuring what Life magazine called “the best suits since Chanel”.

Success followed and in 1967, a year after opening his prêt-a-porter boutique, Rive Gauche, Saint Laurent unveiled his landmark Africa collection. Described by Harper’s Bazaar as “a fantasy of primitive genius”, the collection showcased revealing shift dresses made with wooden beads, shells and raffia. With it, Saint Laurent set the template for African-inspired fashion for years to come – including as recently as Dolce&Gabbana’s spring/summer 2005 and Gucci spring/summer 2011. It wasn’t the only time Africa was to thread its way into the designer’s clothes: there was the 1968 safari suit; his use of colours drawn from the north African landscape; and interpretations of traditional Moroccan clothing such as the djellaba, jabador and burnous. Even in the latest Saint Laurent collection for spring/summer 2012, Vogue found the colours of north Africa in the “sand, navy and khaki palette” of designer Stefano Pilati.

Africa’s influence perhaps also explains why Saint Laurent was one of the first designers to use black models. “It’s extraordinary to work with black models,” he declared, “the way they hold their head, the legs, the body, is very, very provocative and exhilarating. It gives meaning to the whole creation, and modernity too”. While today this makes for a somewhat outdated and exoticised view, it nonetheless opened doors for black models – including Katoucha Niane from Guinea and Somalian model Iman, who Saint Laurent described as his “dream woman”.

The pied piper of fashion

Today Saint Laurent is credited with having created a new wardrobe for the modern woman. His controversial tuxedo suit Le Smoking earned him a ‘bad boy’ reputation but simultaneously achieved its intention of empowering women. On being refused entry to Manhattan’s stylish La Côte Basque restaurant, socialite Nan Kempner simply removed her trousers and waltzed in wearing an Yves Saint Laurent tunic.

Although Saint Laurent became increasingly reclusive over the years, battling with depression and drug addiction, his legacy had already cemented itself. In 1983 New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art held a retrospective of his designs. And in 1985 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur. The 66 year old finally announced the closure of the Yves Saint Laurent couture fashion house in 2002, calling himself “the last of the fashion Mohicans”.

Although Saint Laurent’s huge collection of art, antiques and furniture was sold in 2009 (fetching a record £333million), he lives on through the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, based in his former couture house in Paris, and Jardin Majorelle, the beautiful Marrakech garden he and Bergé bought and restored to its former glory. The botanical garden also houses the couple’s extraordinary collection of Islamic art from Africa and beyond, and has become a peaceful and popular tourist attraction. And of course Saint Laurent’s legacy continues through his clothes themselves, and the sketches, designs and collections of all the designers he has inspired. As he famously once put it, “Fashions fade, style is eternal”.


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