PARIS (Reuters, 2.06.2008) – French fashion king Yves Saint Laurent has died at the age of 71, hailed as a 20th century cultural icon who revolutionized the way women dressed.The reclusive Saint Laurent’s couture creations won global fine art status and he was widely considered to be one of an elite club of designers including Christian Dior and Coco Chanel who made Paris the fashion capital of the world.From Princess Grace of Monaco to the actress Catherine Deneuve, Saint Laurent’s creations adorned many famous women but he was also the first designer to make luxury labels accessible to a wider audience through innovative read-to-wear collections.He exploded on to the world stage at just 21 and built up a clothes, perfumes and accessories empire that resulted in a 1989 stock market flotation – the first by a fashion house.But Saint Laurent, whose death on Sunday was announced without any details of the cause, was plagued by health problems – he suffered from severe depression and underwent treatment for alcohol abuse.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy praised Saint Laurent as a creative genius. „He was convinced that beauty was a luxury that every man and woman needed,” Sarkozy said in a statement.”(Coco) Chanel gave women freedom. Yves Saint Laurent gave them power,” Saint Laurent’s long-time friend and business partner Pierre Berge told France Info radio.”(But) he was someone who was very shy and introverted, who had only very few friends and hid himself from the world.”Saint Laurent, who retired in 2002, was widely credited with changing forever what women wore, making the trouser suit a daytime staple and the tuxedo an elegant option.He also popularized safari jackets and thigh-high boots, and his transparent blouses made near-nudity acceptable in high society. His square-shouldered suits became classics and he simplified evening-wear, moving from shocking satins to flowing white crepe of Hellenic purity.
„He completely revamped a woman’s wardrobe,” luxury underwear designer Chantal Thomass told French radio. „His fashion was full of color and inspired by art.”
The eldest child of a wealthy French industrialist, Saint Laurent was born and grew up in the then French colony of Algeria and showed a talent for design, making clothes for his younger sisters’ dolls.At 17 he entered a Paris fashion school, and his sketch for a cocktail dress won first prize in an annual contest.Introduced to Christian Dior, the gangly Saint Laurent was hired on the spot by the creator of the „New Look” and became his chief assistant. On Dior’s death in 1957, Saint Laurent became chief designer and swiftly outshone his mentor.After his first collection introduced the widely copied „trapeze” silhouette with narrow shoulders and flared skirt, the shy 21-year-old was pushed out on to the Dior building balcony and crowds in the avenue below hailed him like royalty. Saint Laurent directed Dior for three years, until drafted for military service during the Algerian war.
For a sensitive person whose homosexuality had made his school years a torture, army life was an ordeal. He had a nervous breakdown and spent nearly three months in hospital. Berge got a businessman to provide backing for the young designer to establish his own fashion house, and Saint Laurent presented his first collection under his own name in 1962. The „YSL” empire grew steadily and Saint Laurent showed an instinctive ability to sense what the mood on the streets was and turn it into high fashion. But by the late 1980s his health problems were an issue. Insiders said Saint Laurent, who never read newspapers or listened to the radio, became increasingly cut off from reality and lost touch with all but a tiny group of friends. „Fame has destroyed him,” Berge once said.
„All designers have a bit of the megalomaniac in them – the only difference is that the fake designers, the bad ones, are happy megalomaniacs while the real ones are unhappy megalomaniacs. Saint Laurent is an unhappy megalomaniac.” Despite the personal demons, his business empire thrived. The 1989 flotation was a runaway success. But when the Gulf War erupted and the world economy slumped in the early 1990s, Berge and Saint Laurent sank into debt. In 1992, YSL was absorbed by cosmetics and drugs company Sanofi, with Saint Laurent retaining creative control. Then in 1999 it was bought by the Gucci group, itself controlled by French luxury giant PPR. Saint Laurent, rarely seen in public after his retirement, was awarded one of France’s top honors in 2007.
RTL radio said a funeral service was planned for Friday.