Yves Saint Laurent is undoubtedly one of the 20th Century’s most influential couturiers; oft cited as the founding figure for modernity in fashion, his eponymous house has been the epitome of Parisian chic for five decades and counting. Doing justice to such a titan in a book was never going to be easy but Yves Saint Laurent: The Impossible Collection, the latest addition to Assouline’s exclusive Ultimate Collection of handcrafted volumes, doesn’t disappoint.
Charting Saint Laurent’s 40-year oeuvre, from his debut collection in 1962 right through to his final couture presentation upon his retirement in 2002, the book’s author, esteemed fashion journalist and Saint Laurent expert Laurence Benaïm, has curated 100 of the designer’s most iconic signature pieces. The result is a glossy – and hefty, at 9.5kg – homage to the man who changed the face of fashion forever.
After getting his big break assisting Christian Dior, Saint Laurent founded his own label in 1961. Tapping into the sexual revolution that was rumbling around him, his singular aim was to encapsulate female empowerment and confidence through his designs, transforming haute couture for a new era of youthful, strong, independent women.
“To serve women’s bodies, their gestures, their attitude, their lives. I wanted to be part of the women’s liberation movement of the past century,” Saint Laurent once said. “I have always believed that fashion was not only to make women more beautiful, but also to give them confidence.”
and I empowered them”
Yves Saint Laurent
And so he created feminine versions of masculine styles, giving us such fabled pieces as the pinstriped pantsuit, the Saharienne khaki safari jacket and Le Smoking, his black tailored tuxedo (at a time when it was still controversial for women to wear trousers in public). As Saint Laurent once said himself: “Chanel offered women freedom, and I empowered them”.
The designer broke fashion rule after fashion rule, defying taboos and standing up for his beliefs. He was a trailblazer in blurring the boundary between art and couture with his Mondrian collection in 1965; he incorporated sheer organza blouses and transparent gowns into his own collections, never before done; while in the 70s, he launched the seductive, evocatively-named Opium perfume, sparking immediate controversy – though it was Saint Laurent who had the last laugh, with stores selling out within hours of launch.
Yves Saint Laurent
He was also one of the first couturiers to draw inspiration from street clothing, and to popularise the ready-to-wear concept for a wider clientele, opening his Rive Gauche boutique selling off-the-peg in 1966. “I want to give haute couture a kind of wink, a sense of humor – to inject the sense of freedom one sees in the street into high fashion; to give couture the same provocative and arrogant look as punk – but, of course, with luxury and dignity and style,” he opined.
Page upon page of Yves Saint Laurent: The Impossible Collection, which is bound in a handmade silk clamshell case and comes with a pair of complementary white gloves, is filled with the designer’s seminal fashion moments, from tailored pantsuits and his trademark flowing ‘coup de crayon’ draped gowns to the designer’s remarkable Ballets Russes collection, tributes to Picasso, Matisse and van Gogh, and his lavish use of velvet, feathers, leopard print and jewel tones.
As author Laurence Benaïm writes: “Saint Laurent’s body of work is an endless fantasy, a star-filled sky illuminated by a full moon or a midnight sun. Each design reflects its time period, and yet all his creations are modern and timeless.”
If ever there was a book that was going to provide some much-needed escapism, inspiration and aesthetic joy during lockdown, this is it.