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Remembering Designer Yves Saint Laurent

June 2, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Yves Saint Laurent died on Sunday, aged 71, leaving behind a rich legacy of iconic work and groundbreaking change in the world of fashion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yves Saint Laurent burst onto the fashion scene as a young man with a first collection that featured the so-called “trapeze dress.” He recalled it several years ago.

YVES SAINT LAURENT, Fashion Designer (through translator): I was lucky enough to become Christian Dior’s assistant at the age of 18, his successor at the age of 21, and to enjoy success from my very first collection in 1958, whose 44th anniversary will be in a few days’ time. Since then, I have lived for my profession and through my profession.

JEFFREY BROWN: He opened his own high fashion house in the early ’60s. Every season was marked by dramatic new statements, from a tuxedo jacket for women to chic beatnik fashion, each style cementing his position as a pre-eminent designer who would change the way women dressed.

He was also one of the first to emphasize so-called “ready-to-wear” lines for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t buy designer clothes. He’s often credited with making pantsuits part of the basic wardrobe for many women.

His health was often a concern. He struggled with depression throughout his career. He announced his retirement in early 2002, after much of his company was sold to Gucci.

Yves Saint Laurent died Saturday in Paris. He was 71 years old.

A look back

JEFFREY BROWN: And we take a look at Yves Saint Laurent's work and impact now with Valerie Steele, director and chief curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

Well, I want to ask you about the world of high fashion and about the rest of us, but start with high fashion. Why was he so important?

VALERIE STEELE, Fashion Institute of Technology: I think that Yves Saint Laurent was like Picasso. He went from style to style. And each time, he influenced what all other designers were doing and what women around the world were wearing.

JEFFREY BROWN: So was there not, then, a particular signature look?

VALERIE STEELE: Well, I think there are so many. He brought art into fashion with the Mondrian dress. He brought subculture into fashion with the beatnik collection. He brought the pantsuit, really, into fashion for women in the late '60s and '70s.

And he brought all kinds of vernacular styles, like the trench coat and the pea jacket and the safari jacket into fashion. So it's sort of one thing after another.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us more about the pants and the pantsuit, because everything I read that's what they emphasize. He put the pants -- he put women in pants and made it OK to wear in the office, on the street, wherever. Tell us about that.

VALERIE STEELE: Absolutely. Women have been wearing pants occasionally for many years. I mean, Marlene Dietrich wore them in the 1930s. But Saint Laurent, more than any other designer, put ordinary women into trousers so that they could wear them to work, in the city, not just for sports, not just for casual things, but as part of their ordinary lifestyle.

Democratizing fashion

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, he's often described as having help democratize fashion. I think this is going to what you're talking about, translated to everyday life. But explain that. Explain how that worked when he started in the industry and what he did.

VALERIE STEELE: Well, back then, fashion in Paris was really haute couture. And then you have the American industry, which copied French couture.

But Saint Laurent thought that all the young girls wouldn't necessarily want or be able to buy couture, and so he started a line Rive Gauche, "Left Bank," which was much less expensive and was very hip and beautiful.

I remember once a picture of him in '71 holding two dresses, one couture and one Rive Gauche. And the Rive Gauche one cost maybe 1/20th of the couture, and they both looked fantastic. And he was saying, "Fashion is for everyone. It's not just for the rich."

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I assume, to stay at the top of this game for a long time requires both, I guess, a sense of art and of business. Did he have both?

VALERIE STEELE: He had the sense of art in spades. And, fortunately, his partner, Pierre Berge, was the businessman par excellence. So even though Yves was so creative and so nervous and anxious, Pierre Berge helped keep him on track and run the business.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in what ways is he influential on designers today? Where do you see it?

VALERIE STEELE: Any time anyone makes a pantsuit or a tuxedo suit for women, any time color -- sort of what used to be thought of as clashing colors, like fuchsia and orange come to the fore, any time an artist takes a painting and puts that motif on a dress, or takes a sportswear theme, a kind of sports jacket, and turns into that high fashion, all that comes from Saint Laurent.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you see that as you walk down the street today?

VALERIE STEELE: Absolutely. He once said that all a woman really needed to be stylish was a black sweater, a skirt, and a trench coat. So, beyond high fashion, fashion was really an attitude and a sense of personal style.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me just ask you briefly, there are in the obituaries a sort of end-of-an-era feel, of a kind of generation passing, when Paris was the height of fashion -- may still well be, of course -- but, I mean, his generation. Does it feel that way to you?

VALERIE STEELE: Well, you know, I think we tend to think of him more in terms of being of the generation of Chanel and Dior. But when you realize he was only 18 when he started with Dior, he was so young back then. He really -- there's still plenty of people like Armani around who are still going who are older than Saint Laurent was when he died.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Valerie Steele, the Fashion Institute of Technology, thanks very much.