Yves Saint Laurent was the Buddy Holly of fashion: super thin with dark, square glasses; vigorous and with it.
But somehow, overnight, the fashion icon retreated into old age. And he's only 58.
Monday night, at the launch of his newest scent, Champagne, Saint Laurent--unsteady and bloated--struggled to focus. Although he still has the shock of brown hair and wrap-around smile, behind the dark, square glasses he seemed in his own world.
Perhaps it is hard for a man who lives in isolation to react when there are cameras flashing. The next day at an intimate lunch at Nan Kempner's Park Avenue apartment, he apparently was in better shape. Saint Laurent, Kempner said, is "totally free" from drugs and alcohol, problems he has acknowledged over the years. "He was adorable and all excited about being in New York," Kempner said. Nonetheless, years of overindulgence have "left their mark."
Asked about Saint Laurent's health, his partner and protector, Pierre Berge--the bull to Saint Laurent's doe--snapped:
"He works very hard and very well. The rest, we don't care."
Indeed, the bad reviews, the rumors, the scandals, the lawsuits are remnants compared to the racks of his original creations that dominated fashion in the '60s and '70s. Although his work has been dismissed in the last few years, as recently as this fall echoes of his elegant looks showed up in the collections of young designers. He'll always be material for fashion history.
But that doesn't explain why he had to appear at the Statue of Liberty this week. A year ago Saint Laurent sold his name and empire to Elf Sanofi, a French government-owned company. And the perfume launch was an example of what happens when a designer, even one as reclusive as Saint Laurent, sells his body: He must produce it. Particularly to flog perfume, which raises on average 85% of most designers' profits.
And so, in one of the most beautiful settings in this metropolis--Liberty Island--with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, Saint Laurent came out to pose with a giant bottle of perfume.
Among the 1,200 guests were members of fashion's old guard. All were most kind about Saint Laurent. "I adore him," Bill Blass said. "Yves is just the greatest," said Oscar de la Renta.
Despite 10,000 votive candles, 12 minutes of fireworks and the torch held by the lady herself, there wasn't enough light. So old friends stumbled into each other as they refilled their flute glasses with champagne. In the end, it was a lovely evening--but a most sober one. After the last fireworks at 9:45, people raced to the ferries to be the first to get their cars from valet parking. This was nothing like the wild revelry of 16 years ago, when Saint Laurent launched Opium aboard a Chinese junk parked under the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Opium party, perhaps like the decadent Studio 54 era during which it was held, was by all accounts much naughtier: More people were snorting cocaine in the bathroom than ingesting 13,000 oysters, clams and mussels on the disco deck. People were actually having sex on a lower deck. And the cream of society and fashion, led by Diana Vreeland and Truman Capote, showed up.
Those were heady, glamorous times in New York, and Yves Saint Laurent was the premier couturier .
He had single-handedly saved haute couture in the politically tumultuous '60s by keeping rich clients in sync with students rioting in the streets. Rather than run away from the democratization of fashion, as Chanel and Balenciaga had, Saint Laurent suggested it was chic to wear bomber jackets over ball gowns; he adapted pea jackets and smocks for ladies who lunch; he introduced the rich peasant look and dyed fur apple green.
By the end of the '70s, the Saint Laurent look was ubiquitous, with women showing up for all occasions in square-shouldered blazers, trousers and vinyl raincoats.
And for a generation of designers growing up in a fashion climate influenced by ready-to-wear, Saint Laurent demonstrated the enduring value of haute couture --of a beauty and rigor that can only come through custom-making clothes.
Saint Laurent's glory years lasted an unusually long time--almost 20 years. But like a painter who fills several museum galleries with extraordinary works and then as many with barely an interesting canvas, Saint Laurent's work in the 1980s was at best routine.
Today's fashion heroes are Giorgio Armani and Jil Sander, both of whom have blended America's love of sportswear with European tailoring for women with careers.
While Saint Laurent's initials blanket sunglasses and men's shirts in China and his name recognition in Europe remains high, his image on American shores has foundered as home-grown designers such as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan have come to the fore.
Part of the problem may be that in fashion, image is everything and Saint Laurent's has become, well, static.
Rich women who buy $30,000 haute c outure suits or even $6,000 dresses like to identify with their designers. And the life of Saint Laurent has been more closely identified with trauma than success.
He has admitted to cocaine abuse and debilitating alcoholism; he has openly discussed the trials of growing up homosexual in Algeria during the '30s and '40s; he once considered throwing himself into the Seine with a prized bronze sculpture tied around his neck.
By the mid-'80s he was finding it increasingly difficult to produce four collections a year. His business was also mired in debt. In January, 1993, he and Berge sold YSL to Elf Sanofi for $650 million and had to fend off charges of insider trading after the deal. Even the Champagne launch came amid controversy. The French Champagne industry won a lawsuit that bars the perfume being sold under that name in France.
In spite of it all, Yves Saint Laurent is still spoken of by people with a memory beyond that last collection with a reverence, if not a sadness, reserved for a god.
"At the heights of his glory, Saint Laurent articulated a vision that many women of all ages aspired to," Holly Brubach wrote in the New Yorker in 1992.
"But now that his collections have failed to move forward, his house attracts mostly middle-aged women whose prime coincided with his own, who continue to adhere to the style they dressed in during the years when they felt at their most attractive."
On Nov. 15, 1957, he was 21, so alive, so wildly handsome, so remarkably shy but self-assured. It was on this day that Yves Saint Laurent, an obscure assistant born in Algiers to a French upper-crust family, was presented to the fashion press. He was to be the successor to Christian Dior, who had died a month earlier. He was to be master of the House of Dior and its 1,400 employees.
"Aren't you frightened?" he was asked.
"Not at all," he replied.
In 1958, he unveiled his first collection, starring the "trapeze" dress, a sexy extension of Dior's sack dress except that it hung free from the shoulders and dipped at the bosom. It was shown on his favorite model, Victoire, a pert and curvy Dior mannequin, and the Avenue Montaigne, Paris' fashion boulevard, received it with bravos.
But in just a few years, the House of Dior expelled him. He had the gall to put women in "beatnikish clothes," according to one report: an alligator raincoat, turtleneck sweaters, a knitted cap. It was too much, too young, too mod for the couture customer, usually a duchess in the middle years of life.
Rumor was, the House of Dior, which had helped Saint Laurent get a deferment from the French army, suddenly had him drafted. So he went from the perfumed fashion houses to the barracks, and there he had his first nervous collapse. Victoire and Pierre Berge, an arrogant young art dealer who had fallen in love with Saint Laurent at a party, rescued him and together in 1961 they opened a new couture house on the unfashionable Rue Spontini.
Again Saint Laurent was an overnight success.
He put women in safari jackets and men's suits. But he managed to feminize all these masculine styles. He was also the first to show the micro-mini on leggy models.
By the end of the '70s, everyone was tired of looking as if they'd spent all day planning a revolution, and to everyone's relief, Saint Laurent brought back evening wear--gorgeous taffeta ball gowns, sable-trimmed Cossack coats and, of course, "Le Smoking," an evening suit that looked like a man's tuxedo.
His color combinations also became legendary. He had the audacity to pair fuchsia and neon yellow. And no one used red the way Saint Laurent did to create an ultra-arch sexuality. His models and his muses, such as Paloma Picasso, Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux--women with strong features and great style--always wore dark red lipstick and deep carmine-red nails.
This is one of the many areas where Saint Laurent took a standard fashion template and did it again and again, sort of the way a composer uses a particular concerto.
"He used colors the way a sensitive collagist might--full blown, in unusual combinations," said Richard Martin, curator of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute, which staged a retrospective of Saint Laurent's work in 1983.
With the first infusion of financial success, the shy and fragile 6-foot-2 designer and his short, confident partner bought a townhouse together on the Rue de Babylone and became one of the most celebrated homosexual couples in Paris. Together they also bought a sumptuous chateau in Normandy and another house in Marrakech, Morocco, where they entertained jet-set friends.
According to Vanity Fair writer Bob Colacello, their crowd was made up of "rich hippies obsessed by style. Everything had to be absolutely divine--clothes, jewelry, furniture, paintings, food, presentation of food. . . ."
Colacello, then-editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, recalled going with Warhol to Saint Laurent's salon in Paris.
"Pierre was very much the papa and the rest were his children. I guess Yves was more than a child--he was the sun around which everything revolved. It was a tight-knit, incestuous, extremely fast-living crowd."
And it was often impenetrable.
"I can remember times when they would even leave me and Andy out, and start speaking French knowing full well we couldn't understand them," Colacello said.
Along with Valentino, De la Renta and Blass, Saint Laurent's clique pioneered the idea of fashion designers as social arbiters. Their extravagant homes, cars, and trips to China and India were promoted in glossy magazines and eventually, they took the places of old aristocratic families as the kings and queens of lifestyle.
There seem to be no limit to how much Saint Laurent and Berge could spend. But even then, at the height of his success, Saint Laurent's pattern of creativity, anxiety and despair undermined him.
In her French biography of Saint Laurent, Laurence Banim, a 32-year-old fashion writer for the newspaper Le Monde, described this "infernal cycle" and the many mental collapses that predictably followed each collection.
In time, the politically connected Berge began hawking their company around the financial world and the state-owned Elf Sanofi eventually bought all of Berge's and Saint Laurent's shares. Each walked away with $72 million. Both also received long-term contracts to manage the couture house into the next century.
"We've both been anxious for some time to guarantee the longevity of the house," Berge told Women's Wear Daily. "It's more than a business for Yves. It's like a child. It's his art."
It is not surprising that such a cultivated man and sensitive soul as Saint Laurent drew inspiration from the works of Picasso and Mondrian. Saint Laurent is among a group of designers, such as Romeo Gigli and Jil Sander, who see themselves as artists. This might seem pretentious, but it also explains how they justify their pricey clothes in a world in which most people couldn't imagine spending their annual salary on a sweater or a dress.
Yet no one more than Saint Laurent himself recognizes that the era of the great couturier is ending. He has often likened himself to his beloved Marcel Proust as someone who is watching the old order die.
A few years ago, he confessed that he once considered abandoning couture for "mass manufacturing."
"But it was too late," he said in an interview. "I had too much responsibility to the people who had helped me establish my maison. "
When he talks about those "people," he often includes his clients. Although he could often be caught in his heyday mimicking them on the second floor of his studio, there is no doubt that Saint Laurent deeply admires women.
Gretchen Wayne, 58-year-old L.A. socialite and daughter-in-law of the late John Wayne, is one of the women who has kept the House of Saint Laurent afloat.
On Monday, as she was running out to a Pete Wilson fund-raiser, wearing a Saint Laurent tweed jacket with a fringe around the bottom, she paused to explain her loyalty.
"The jackets are the finest fits, the shoulders feel like nobody else's, the evening wear is so elegant," she gushed. A Size 6, she has been buying his clothes since 1970, when the Rive Gauche boutique opened in Beverly Hills.
"I add pieces to my wardrobe and mix them with things I bought 20 years ago. This isn't to say I haven't let out the waists or raised and dropped the hems. I just think his clothes are beautiful. He endures."
Andre Leon Talley, Vogue's creative director, recalls watching Saint Laurent take three yards of white hat veil and a rose satin ribbon and turn them into a halter top on a model.
"To see the hands tie the ribbon and caress the breast with the tulle was fantastic, " Talley said. "It was a poetic moment of a great person who is in his own world of fantasy and eroticism. Only he could do it that way. He managed to make out of this tulle and ribbon something quite ethereal, quite sexy and quite modern."
And he did it as quickly and naturally as someone else might take a sip of water. It's moments like these, and the summary of those moments, not the tortured underpinnings, that will be remembered.