Even for those only remotely interested in fashion, the names of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld must surely conjure a ring of Parisian chic. The former, YSL, had over the course of his 40+ year career as couturier, produced a legacy of classics such as the trapeze dress, the safari jacket, the Mondrian shift and the iconic “le smoking”. The latter, KL, is the eccentric Chanel designer with the white hair in a ponytail, dark sunglasses, and fingerless leather gloves omnipresent in the media and high society scene.

Both men debuted in the fashion world at the same time when they shared the stage at the awards for the prestigious International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition, where YSL took 1st place in the dress category and KL in the coat category. The year was 1954; YSL was 18 years old, and Lagerfeld 21.

Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld were similar and yet very different. Both were foreign to Paris — YSL was a French native of Algeria, while Lagerfeld was an expatriate German national. Both were were prolific designers and driven by a shared aesthete to clothe the female form. In the beginning they were good friends who relished in the fun and folly in the post-war French capital, working to excel in their art by day and partying and wooing models together by night.

From friends, they progressively became rivals. Perhaps this was inevitable given the intense competetiveness in the fashion world. When Christian Dior died in 1957, YSL became the house’s creative director, a glorious feat for a 21-year old. Lagerfeld, on the other hand, worked for the house of Balmain for a few unremarkable years and then struck out as a free-lancer for other designers, most notably Chloé and Fendi. As it turned out, the fundamental difference between the two men was that YSL cared about fame and glory and aesthetics, while Lagerfeld cared for self-image and money. Ultimately, the schism was complete as they diverged into two separate camps hermetically sealed off by their entourage, with the exception of one Swann-inspired minion named Jacques de Bascher who clung on to both men but died of AIDS at an early age.

Read superficially, this can be a simplistic analysis. But Alicia Drake’s book The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris goes beyond detailing the life and work of these two icons of design. She documents the generational repercussions of the socially tumultuous decades of 60s, the libertine and unrepressed 70s, and the AIDS-ravaged 80s. More than a biography of the two famous designers, it is a commentary on society at large, viewed through the microcosm of the fashion world. Her intelligent and thoughtful juxtaposition of the two men, backed by in-depth interviews and archive research over 5 years, sheds light not only on their characters and temperaments, but also the core motivation and inner drive of each.

YSL was a manic-depressive who could sketch brilliant designs for entire collections over several weeks, fuelled by nothing more than cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs, then collapse into a period of intense emptiness and emptiness. When he left Dior to start his own couture house in 1961, he had the moral and practical assistance of his life partner Pierre Bergé, who shouldered the quotidian demands of life to allow YSL to concentrate on his couture work. It was Bergé who rescued and cared for YSL through his constant battles against depression and addiction. Until the end of his life, YSL inhabited his own imaginary world where beauty reigned in a romantic past, much like the cherished memories of Proust.

Lagerfeld’s teutonic background never allowed him the luxury of being tended to. He did everything himself — his free-lance contracts, licenses, public relations, advertising, marketing, and money management, in addition to designing for Chanel and other labels. At his apex, Lagerfeld designed up to 8 collections a year. He amassed great wealth, made and broke friendships, cultivated a self-image to go with the current trend. He does not smoke, drink, take drugs or indulge in promiscuity. He is a rock, a survivor in the high-casualty world of international fashion.

Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008 from a brain tumor. He had officially retired from fashion in 2002 when his creativity was no longer in tempo with rapidly evolving trends. But Karl Lagerfeld kept marching along with the times, inventing and reinventing himself, each time better than the last and without any sign of ever stopping. Dorian Gray himself probably couldn’t outdo him.

Lagerfeld did not attend Saint Laurent’s lavish funeral with heads of state and celebrities. Perhaps he was off somewhere alone, away from the flash bulbs, to mourn a friend, an arch rival, or a decadent era, without actually having to confront mortality himself?

The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970’s Paris
by Alicia Drake
432 pages

From blurb:

In the 1970s, Paris fashion exploded like a champagne bottle left out in the sun. Amid sequins and longing, celebrities and aspirants flocked to the heart of chic, and Paris became a hothouse of revelry, intrigue, and searing ambition. At the center of it all were fashion’s most beloved luminaries – Yves Saint Laurent, the reclusive enfant terrible, and Karl Lagerfeld, the flamboyant freelancer with a talent for reinvention – and they divided Paris into two fabulous halves. Their enduring rivalry is chronicled in this dazzling exposé of an era: of social ambitions, shared obsessions, and the mesmerizing quest for beauty.