Yves Saint Laurent had an early sense of himself as an outsider, marginal and vulnerable. It was a self-image that he could never quite shake off, even at the peak of his subsequent success. He was born in Oran, Algeria, on 1 August 1936, a fact that cast him in some Parisian eyes as worse than a provincial, a kind of misplaced Arab under the skin. He was bullied at school. Aware from an early age that he was homosexual, he actually dared to do something about it – his earliest sexual experiences were with Arab boys in the vieux quartier of Oran – but he suffered grave pangs of fear and guilt as a consequence. His teenage enthusiasm in couture and theatre design was matched by a precocious talent which first saw recognition when, at seventeen, he won the third prize in a competition for young fashion designers. He saw Paris for the first time, in 1953, when he went to the awards ceremony. In the autumn of the following year he went back to Paris to enrol in the Chambre Syndical de la Couture. When he entered the same competition again, he beat a boy called Karl Lagerfield to first place.
It was in 1955 that, as they say, Yves Saint Laurent met his destiny in the person of Christian Dior, who gave him a job on the strength of a selection of his drawings. Saint Laurent started work on 20 June 1955, and had soon made himself, if not indispensable to the firm, at least demonstrably useful to it. For the autumn collection of 1957 he designed no fewer than thirty-five outfits – more than any previous Dior junior had been invited to do. In fact, Dior had already decided that Yves Saint Laurent would be his successor. Thus, Dior’s death in October was duly followed on 15 November 1957 by the announcement that Saint Laurent would take over all the company’s sketching. He was twenty-one; his first major show would be at the end of January 1958.
When Yves Saint Laurent met the painter Bernard Buffet and his lover Pierre Bergé, he and Bergé fell in love at first sight. Things worked out neatly: for a while they became lovers, Buffet went off and got married. Bergé was six years older than Saint Laurent and, being based in Paris, had had less of a problem coming to terms with his homosexuality. As he later said, ‘By the time I was twenty-one or twenty-two I’d met people like Jean Cocteau. If you moved in those circles it was perfectly acceptable’. It was through Bergé that Saint Laurent now met and became a friend of Cocteau, who was in his late sixties; and he began going to the soirées of Marie-Laure de Noailles. (Bergé, incidentally, once spent the night after a leftist demonstration sharing a prison cell with Albert Camus.)
Autumn 1960 saw the influential triumph of Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Beat’ collection; but the year was marred by a major personal defeat. Called up for military service in Algeria, Saint Laurent survived a mere nineteen days in barracks before suffering a breakdown and being hospitalised. He was kept heavily sedated in the Val-de-Grace asylum and allowed no visitors. Eventually, Bergé managed to get him released from the asylum and discharged from the army on health grounds. Meanwhile, to add insult to injury, he had been replaced at Dior – although he later got compensation for this. The time was obviously ripe to set up his own independent fashion house, with Pierre Bergé acting as business manager. The new firm of Yves Saint Laurent held its first show on 29 January 1962, just four days after the launch of Dior’s new collection.
The press response was muted at best, but Yves Saint Laurent’s reputation for chic soon outstripped that of the older firm. It helped that Saint Laurent and Bergé were making some extremely trendy friends. During the period when they set up their first Rive Gauche boutique in Paris (22 September 1966) and the first astonishing collections of trouser suits and smokings for women were launched, they were to be seen in the company of such superstars of the arts world as Rudolf Nureyev (whom they had first met before his defection in 1961, but who now often sought them out in Paris) and Andy Warhol (whom they met in the summer of 1966). Before long, Warhol’s trademark images were appearing on Yves Saint Laurent’s trademark frocks. The 1968 autumn collection was shrewdly hitched to the bandwagon of youthful innovation when they dedicated it to the students who had participated in les événtments in May.
When the second Rive Gauche boutique was opened in 1968, this time in Manhattan, the friendship with Warhol developed further. According to a friend’s account, ‘They didn’t say much to each other as Yves’s English was never very good and Andy hardly spoke French at all’. Not that, even if they had been fluent in each other’s language, this would ever have been the most loquacious friendship, since the two men were oddly similar in being at their happiest as taciturn observers in the midst of a vivid social whirl. Rive Gauche opened in London in 1969; then there was Rive Gauche for men, and both Nureyev and Warhol wore the brand. Yves Saint Laurent, in many respects the most introverted of men, was photographed naked by Jeanloup Sieff, and his image was then used to advertise the new Yves Saint Laurent men’s scent. (He was thirty-five at the time.) Saint Laurent and Nureyev, whose relationship had always bee flirtatious, gave some of their friends the impression that flirtation, the theory of desire, had at some point been put into practice. Warhol, by contrast, always seemed to be on his own personal planet. According to a fourth party, when Saint Laurent and Bergé were in Venice with Warhol:
Once I suggested going to see a wonderful Veronese in a nearby church. And Andy said, ‘Oh gee! Virna Lisi! Let’s go see her!’ He thought Veronese was an Italian movie star!
Later, Warhol made a series of silk-screen portraits of Saint Laurent; but when he agreed also to portray two other designers, Valentino and Roy Halston Frowick, Saint Laurent threatened to destroy his own.
Yves Saint Laurent was an avid reader of Proust, but for superstitious reasons he never read to the end of Le Temps Retrouvé; instead, he would go back to the beginning and start again. When in 1983 he and Bergé bought the Chateau Gabriel in Benerville, Normandy – real Proust country – they named each room after a character in the Recherche and decorated it accordingly. (Bergé got the Baron de Charlus.) Success had not taken them into the upper reaches of the establishment – or rather, Saint Laurent had got there on Bergé’s coat-tails. (The arts are reason enough, in virtually any country, to debar an individual from the very highest levels.) From 1984, Bergé became a friend of Francois Mitterand; he was now one of the most well-known members of La gauche caviare – the champagne socialists. In 1985, Yves Saint Laurent was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. (On the day of Mitterand’s investiture in 1985, Yves finally came out to his father.) In 1989, Mitterand appointed Bergé president of the Opera de Paris; this eventually led to a major break with Rudolf Nureyev, who believed Bergé had culpably neglected his role as artistic director of the Opera. On the other hand, the relationship with Andy Warhol took its own sweet course. One of the last commissions Warhol worked on before his death in 1987 was a series of unimaginative silk-screens of Yves Saint Laurent’s pet dog, Moujik.
Source: Alice Rawsthorn, Yves Saint Laurent: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1996)