Pinault sold the commercial arm of the business to Gucci Group IV, whose creative director, Tom Ford, took over as designer of Saint Laurent ready-to-wear. Pinault retained control of YSL couture, and Saint Laurent continued to design it.
But he felt alienated from the industry he had ruled for so long.
"I am extremely proud that women of the world over today wear pantsuits, pea jackets and trench coats," he said at his retirement news conference. "In many ways I feel that I have created the wardrobe of the contemporary woman.
"I have grappled with anguish, and I have been through sheer hell," he said. "I have known those fair-weather friends we call tranquilizers and drugs."
He also had saved one of every item he designed, along with sketches, which were housed in an archive in Paris under climate-controlled conditions, as a research center for design students.
Several weeks after he announced his retirement, Saint Laurent staged a fashion retrospective of his work at the Centre Pompidou, the contemporary art museum in Paris. An army of famous models gave new life to 300 iconic creations.
Reviewing the show for the Herald Tribune, Menkes called attention to his unequaled sense of color, "mixes of old rose and hyacinth" in one outfit, "orange, purple and asparagus green" in another and declared him the greatest living fashion designer.
Some of the colors seemed inspired by the paintings by master artists that filled Saint Laurent's Paris duplex.
It was a grand finale to a career that, even in its waning years, included a retrospective exhibit of Saint Laurent designs at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983, the first of its kind for a living fashion designer.
Times staff writers Geraldine Baum and Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris contributed to this report.