Teenage YSL’s very first designs were dresses for his mother and sister. He also created detailed paper dolls.
The designer posed nude for the first YSL eau de toilette for men, Pour Homme, in 1971. Partner Pierre Bergé on the advertising campaign:
It was just provocation on the part of Yves Saint Laurent. The picture didn’t specifically target the gay population, even though it resonated strongly among them. In any case the photo was hardly published at the time. Just barely in the French press. It was only much later on that it became an almost mythical icon.
There was a long rivalry between YSL and Karl Lagerfeld that many say started after Saint Laurent outshone Lagerfeld, who was his classmate at a Paris trade school for couturiers, in an international fashion competition. YSL also had an affair with Lagerfeld’s muse and boyfriend, the Parisian society dandy and fashion darling Jacques de Bascher.
Early in his career, YSL worked for designer Christian Dior, who became his mentor. “Dior fascinated me,” he once recalled. ”I couldn’t speak in front of him. He taught me the basis of my art. Whatever was to happen next, I never forgot the years I spent at his side.” Following Dior’s death in 1957, YSL advanced from the position of the first ever and only Head Assistant to Artistic Director. But in 1960, the Algerian-born designer was called back to his home country to fight in the war for its independence. When he returned to France early due to a nervous breakdown from stress, he discovered he’d been ousted from the company. He successfully sued the fashion house and used the money to open his own.
While undergoing psychiatric treatment due to his troubles in the military, YSL was subjected to electroshock therapy and given psychoactive drugs. He later blamed this for his addiction to cocaine and alcohol.
In 1966, the first customer for YSL’s prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) line at his Rive Gauche shop was actress Catherine Deneuve.
YSL was one of the earliest designers to use non-white models on the runway.
The designer owned a number of French Bulldogs all named Moujik.
Known for attending and throwing extravagant parties, YSL’s 1978 bash celebrating his fragrance Opium is the stuff of legend. We wrote the insane celebrity party:
Andy Warhol regretted not being able to attend Yves Saint Laurent’s “big, glamorous YSL Opium party,” which should tell you just how ridiculous and amazing the million-dollar affair was. To celebrate the launch of his new fragrance in 1978, which created controversy amongst Chinese-American groups and was banned in several countries, the designer threw an exotic yacht party in New York City. More than 800 people attended, including Diana Vreeland, Cher, and Truman Capote. Guests were greeted by a 1,000-pound Buddha, Chinese temples, the sweet smell of 2,000 Hawaiian orchids, and fireworks.
In 1983, YSL became the first living designer to receive a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.
YSL never knew he was going to die of brain cancer. His partner Pierre Bergé once stated: “The doctor told me that there was nothing more to do and we mutually decided that it would be better for him to not know. You know, I have the belief that Yves would not have been strong enough to accept that.”
YSL created the fashions for Claudia Cardinale in The Pink Panther, Romy Schneider in Dirty Hands, and Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger.
YSL owned an incredible art collection, including an original Picasso, Matisse, and ancient Egyptian art. It was sold following his death in a record-breaking auction.
YSL’s greatest muse and collaborator (designing jewelry and accessories) was Loulou de la Falaise, who took issue with the term “muse.” In 2010 she stated: “For me, a muse is someone who looks glamorous but is quite passive, whereas I was very hard-working. I worked from 9am to sometimes 9pm, or even 2am. I certainly wasn’t passive.”
With his 1966 creation Le Smoking, YSL introduced the tuxedo to women’s fashion, helping to pioneer androgynous styles.