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Dream still lives for Yves Saint Laurent French designer celebrates 3 decades of haute couture


PARIS -- First came the tuxedos, wave after wave of them, squadrons of models marching to the brink of the stage of the Opera Bastille.

Then came the satins, iridescent and ablaze. Then the pastels, the Russian peasant dresses, the see-throughs, the Braques and the Matisses, a white wedding dress, capes, embroideries, hundreds of models on the stage, wearing the whole history of the house of Yves Saint Laurent.

Then came Yves Saint Laurent himself, fat, unsteady, trembling with nervousness, blinking incredulously at the standing ovation from the crowd of 2,800 that had assembled to celebrate his 30 years of haute couture. At each elbow, holding him up emotionally and literally, were actress Catherine Deneuve and his partner and longtime companion Pierre Berge.

The crowd was completely his -- his employees, his artisans, his clients and his friends. Paloma Picasso, Marisa Berenson, Nan Kempner, Danielle Mitterrand, Rudolf Nureyev. In front of them he cried, he mumbled, he hesitated.

"They are all my children -- all different ages and characters," he said of the designs. "I felt nervous and intimidated before I walked out, but then I saw the dresses, all my memories, all my past. I have given so much love to every one of them."

But how much love -- or talent -- does he have left to give?

That has been the awful question that has nagged each Saint Laurent show for the last several years. The whispers have said his glorious talents are now threadbare, that they have been rent by drugs, drink and depression.

The rumors were strongest two years ago, when for the first time ever he did not appear on the runway after his show. He was hospitalized in Paris, reportedly for exhaustion, and a confidant said that tests for AIDS and cancer turned up negative.

Negative, too, were the reviews.

Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune called the show "a sad affair." She said YSL's fezzes and harem pants reminded her of "a down-market travel brochure."

Mr. Saint Laurent appeared to be in total eclipse last summer when his collection was mercilessly scissored by the press. "Saint Laurent is drawing inspiration only from his past," said Ms. Menkes. "He has nothing new to say. By comparison [to Christian Lacroix and Karl Lagerfeld], YSL's collections are dead."

Now the rumors of that death seem greatly exaggerated. The YSL spring-summer collection that was shown here last week was well-received, even applauded. Many of the doyennes of the fashion press sounded almost relieved that "le maitre" had not embarrassed himself with yet another retrospective.

The new collection did recall some past triumphs. There were nods to "le smoking," babushka scarves and his brilliant florals, stripes and appliques. But there was no suggestion of the wholesale recycling of years past.

"I love all the colors in this collection," said Loulou de la Falaise, Mr. Saint Laurent's assistant for more than 20 years, as she sat in the boutique at the YSL headquarters on Avenue Marceau. "It is very light, very poetic."

Mr. Saint Laurent, 55, liked it, too, and he sounded positively reborn in a rare interview in the Journal du Dimanche: "This collection is a renaissance for me. I feel the same way I did when I created the trapeze line [for Dior in 1958]. I'm happy."

He hasn't always been so happy. His depressions, he said, have often kept him locked up, quite literally, afraid to go out -- whether he has been in the Paris apartment at 55 rue Babylone or in the villas he shares with Mr. Berge in Deauville and Marrakech.

"Terrible, terrible," he said of the illness two years ago. "I thought I'd never get well, that I'd be sick forever. I was going crazy."

He said he even considered suicide. His plan was to take a big bronze sculpture from his apartment, tie it to his neck and "throw myself in the Seine."

He blames his psychiatrist. It wasn't until he found a new doctor, he says, that he got well.

"I don't drink any more," he says now. "I don't take drugs any more. I have changed."

A certain amount of gentle lunacy is part of all the elite fashion houses, says Ms. de la Falaise, who insists Mr. Saint Laurent is "very strong."

"There's nothing wrong with him apart from nerves -- and apart from chocolate binges and drinking too much Coca-Cola, all that awful fizzy stuff."

Even Mr. Saint Laurent's emotional state, which seems to plunge and soar as radically as Parisian hemlines and necklines, is just a part of the business of high fashion:

"All these guys are neurotic and obsessive," his assistant says with a laugh. "They're all loonies, you know, and they tend to be fairly abstract in their thinking.

"It's a bitchy business, sure it is, and there's a hell of a lot of money involved. You employ thousands of people -- that's a hell of a responsibility."

At the house of Saint Laurent, much of that responsibility is carried by Pierre Berge. As the company's chairman, CEO and "eminence grise," he oversees the entire $550 million-a-year empire, which includes haute couture, the Rive Gauche ready-to-wear line, fragrances and accessories.

It was Mr. Berge who shocked Paris -- no small feat in itself -- by announcing that couture would not survive into the next century, that when Mr. Saint Laurent stops working, haute couture will disappear.

A tearful Yves Saint Laurent said as much himself in 1990: "It's true, and it's very sad. In 10 years' time, unless I'm working for a few clients from my own home, there will be no haute couture."

But last week he pulled back, saying: "I must have said that when I was deranged. Haute couture isn't ready to die. You can't kill the dream."

The early days of Yves Saint Laurent seem like a dream to Loulou de la Falaise now. She fondly recalls 20 years ago, when Mr. Saint Laurent's retro designs from the '40s were called "fashion for sitting on a bidet."

"We all got the giggles at that," she says. "It was more fun in those days, when fashion wasn't so fashionable.

"You can't be a gypsy any more."

High fashion is big money, big business, power and posture.

"But Yves is nothing like Calvin Klein or Lagerfeld," she says. "They're just fashion performers. All they know is how to make publicity.

"Yves is shy. He's not good at small conversation. He's like a Russian novel, always making speeches."

Mr. Saint Laurent says he is too protected these days, that he keeps the world at bay by purposely averting his eyes. During the Gulf war, for example, he didn't watch TV or read the papers. He couldn't stomach the violence, what he called "this need for men to crush everything, to destroy everything."

He also rarely travels abroad any more, though he does still winter at the sumptuous Villa Majorelle in Morocco, and says he cannot go out without armed bodyguards.

So he stays inside, working mostly in a top-floor studio at Avenue Marceau with his favorite assistants and artisans -- as the French say, "the people who put their hands in the dough."

Ms. de la Falaise insists Mr. Saint Laurent still designs the collections. He does the basic drawings himself -- "very rough but very beautiful," she says -- and then the team refines them, usually very quickly, to complete the collection.

Couture always loses money. But the collections and designs, even the unwearable ones, are intended to express the image of each house. It may be costly and, in a world of recessions and unemployment, haute couture may seem increasingly irrelevant.

"If we do 10 copies of one dress, that's a lot," says Joy Hendericks, a senior vice president at YSL. "Usually it's three or four, and we only do that for about 20 things from a collection."

Nor does Mr. Saint Laurent do custom work, not even for favored clients like Raisa Gorbachev.

"Maybe if Catherine Deneuve was getting married, maybe he'd do a dress for her," says Ms. Hendericks, fingering the lace of a wedding dress on a rack backstage of the Grand Salon on Avenue Marceau. "But just because you're famous or you have money -- no, he doesn't do that."

And for all the frills, foppery and occasional foolishness of haute couture, there were 2,800 people standing, cheering, weeping, applauding and yelling "Bravo, bravo," last week at the Paris Opera.

They were there as celebrants, acolytes, courtiers to one of the world's great couturiers. And if they worried about the health or longevity of their once and future king, they weren't betraying their fears.

"I can't imagine the world without people making pretty things with their hands," said Ms. de la Falaise. "Fashion is like computers or architecture; it's here to stay. These pretty hands will always be needed. They make dreams come true."

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