"I was in a state of complete euphoria preparing that first collection," Saint Laurent recalled in a 1991 interview with Le Figaro. "I knew I was going to become famous."
Rumors were that it was not so much his fragility as his fashion designs, many of them too radical a departure from the Dior image, that led to his dismissal.
The following year, with the help of Berge, an enterprising businessman who was by then his lover, Saint Laurent sued for breach of contract and was awarded more than $100,000 in a legal separation from Dior. The sudden infusion of cash changed his career and his life. He was on his way to superstar fame and to a public struggle with addiction.
In 1961 he opened his own couture house. Several years later, he added a ready-to-wear division, adapting his style to mass-produced clothing that sold for a fraction of the price of his couture. Suddenly his label was affordable to many more women.
In 1966 he opened his first ready-to-wear boutique, an innovation that was soon imitated by designers in Milan, Paris and New York. His first shop, on the Rue de Tournon near the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, carried his clothing collections as well as hats and handbags he designed and jewelry by his friend Paloma Picasso.
With Berge in charge of the business side, licensing agreements began rolling in. By 1980 it had grown into a $200-million division in his empire.
His duplex apartment in Paris, with its Art Deco furnishings and an art collection that included works by Picasso and Matisse, was featured in glossy magazines. He and Berge also shared a Normandy chateau, a New York penthouse and a house in Marrakech, Morocco.
He tested the strength of his position as the acclaimed "prince of French fashion" when he launched his first men's fragrance, Kouros, in 1971. The full-page ad featured Saint Laurent in the buff, wearing only his shoulder-length reddish hair, his short fuzz of a beard and his metal-frame glasses.
"He told me he wanted to create a scandal," the photographer Jeanloup Sieff recalled of the portrait.
With visions of hippies and flower children lingering, Saint Laurent's nude scene was not entirely antisocial. Still, a number of fashion magazines refused to run the ad. Any that did helped establish Saint Laurent as the industry's most suave maverick. The ad positioned "Yves the person as Yves the product," Drake wrote.
The fashion press was mesmerized and followed "YSL" to discos in Paris and New York, with his entourage of models and muses in tow. He was seen with Andy Warhol, Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev and other artists who were as celebrated in their way as he was in his.
He often declared himself to be a lover of women who wanted to make them look beautiful. In the early 1970s, when women were pushing traditional boundaries, he began to design collections with them in mind. His safari jackets and safari mini-dresses now seem to be a tongue-in-cheek signal to women that he was on their wavelength.
The pants and jackets that he made the center of his daytime look quickly became a uniform for professional women breaking into careers still dominated by men. Many offices banned women from wearing pants to work.
"Today it seems normal, but then it was scandalous," wrote Suzy Menkes, Paris-based fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, in a book of tributes to Saint Laurent on his 40th anniversary in fashion. "Hotels and restaurants wouldn't let you in," Menkes recalled of women who wore pants to dinner.
Saint Laurent's equally bold evening clothes spoke to another development in women's lives. As they began to openly take the lead in romantic pursuits, he outfitted them for the venture. Transparent blouses, provocative short skirts and satin tuxedos played up the physical differences, and similar sexual appetites, of women and men.
He also introduced a menswear division, one that allowed men the same fashion freedom that his women's collections did. He styled paisley shirts and velvet blazers in the '60s, caftans in the '70s and white linen suits after that, all of which he wore.
Other designers copied his best ideas as fast as he produced them. Saint Laurent "is the most influential designer I've ever seen," Women's Wear Daily publisher John Fairchild said in Newsweek in 1975.
For the opening of his first U.S. boutique on Madison Avenue in New York in 1968, he wore a paisley Cossack shirt and a cascade of gold chains on his hip-huggers. He was surrounded by the famous women he dressed -- Lauren Bacall and Maria Callas, Paloma Picasso and Catherine Deneuve.