It's fitting that the exhibit's only U.S. stop is in San Francisco, the hotbed of revolution in the 1960s, because Saint Laurent was a fashion revolutionary, challenging gender roles by creating the first tuxedo for women (dubbed "le smoking") in 1966 and introducing us to the multicultural kimonos, Indian tunics and African prints that we take for granted as staples of a modern wardrobe.
He launched a conversation between clothes and fine art with pieces inspired by Mondrian, Matisse and Picasso that continues to this day, and took inspiration from work wear and the street.
The clothes, displayed in a gallery with low lighting and the feel of a giant walk-in closet, are stunningly beautiful: A 1988 Van Gogh "Irises" jacket embroidered with 40 pounds of sequins and beads. A 1997 garden party of a gown with a thicket of pink and green organza flowers, leaves, semiprecious stones and satin ribbons. A 1990 coat flocked with flame-colored rooster, pheasant and vulture feathers. The black wool dress with satin collar and cuffs worn by Catherine Deneuve in the 1967 film "Belle de Jour."
Then there are six African-inspired pieces from the 1967 spring/summer collection, beginning with a silk organza column gown with wood beading that's patterned after textiles from the Congo and ending with a raffia coat as big as a wigwam. Each piece is so spectacular you can't imagine it coming down the same runway with the others -- and at least 20 more not on view.
The exhibition, titled "Yves Saint Laurent," debuted in Montreal and runs through April 5 in San Francisco. Its organizing themes showcase how he redefined the silhouette by introducing the trapeze line, how he produced runway travelogues that borrowed from Russian, Chinese and Moroccan native dress, and how he made the perennial fashion motifs of flora and fauna his own.
There are also a number of sketches and photos, including one taken by Andy Warhol of Saint Laurent with his dog.
The clothes are on loan from the Foundation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. And Bergé, Saint Laurent's longtime business partner, was in town for the opening. "So many designers stay in their ivory towers, but Yves Saint Laurent helped women," he said.
Perhaps that's why the most provocative pieces in the show are the ones that changed the way women dressed, back when haute couture really was a design laboratory for ideas that filtered out to the world. There's a wool pea coat from 1962, a cotton safari jacket from 1968, and the first le smoking from 1966 -- so basic, and yet so groundbreaking. And they're looks you would find at almost any department store in the universe now.
It's an interesting moment to think about Saint Laurent's work, now that the politics of fashion have taken center stage in the presidential election, between Hillary Clinton's sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits and Sarah Palin's sexy secretary look. "Saint Laurent thought that if you took the male garment and you passed it to the women's shoulders, you pass the power from men to women," Bergé said. For Saint Laurent, fashion was a dialogue, he added, "a rendezvous between a designer and a woman. Otherwise it's ridiculous."
And according to Bergé, who is never short on opinions, much of fashion today is ridiculous. "Because designers are telling women what to do, not listening to what they want."
He may be right. Now that the fall season is nearly over in the stores before it's even started outdoors, and the whole notion of clothes the price of monthly mortgage payments seems totally out of whack, fashion could use another revolutionary right about now.
And even though the exhibition displays some of the most luxe gowns you'll ever see, made to order for the richest women in the world, including Nan Kempner, Marisa Berenson and Princess Grace, Bergé is blunt when it comes to the world of haute couture.
"It's over. Fashion designers don't understand that, or maybe they don't want to," he says. "Long evening dresses with pearl and sequins -- for who, for where, for what? I dare say I prefer Zara, H&M and Banana Republic. That's serving women and it's cheap."
Yes, but will we ever see it in a museum?