I once had a chance to buy a couture suit by Chanel that was made sometime in the nineteen-fifties, her comeback years. She had closed her maison de couture, on the Rue Cambon, when war was declared in 1939, and reopened it in 1954, when she returned to France, at seventy-one, from self-imposed exile in Switzerland. The stories of her attempts to wrest control of Chanel Parfums from her partners, the Wertheimer family, by exploiting the Nazi race laws, and of her startling offer to Hitler’s secret-police chief to broker a negotiated peace with her old friend Winston Churchill—a farcical operation code-named Modellhut (fashion hat) by Chanel’s S.S. handlers—have always somewhat dampened her charm for me. But the suit was a classic tweed in opalescent pink, with flecks of mauvish blue and a selvage trim, a slightly flared skirt that grazed the knee, and a boxy jacket with her signature cropped sleeves and narrow armholes. The dealer who was selling it, a Frenchwoman, sized me up—literally—before she let me try it on. She had been keeping it under wraps in her back room like a rare piece of erotica, waiting for the right customer. Read more.


This spring, under the aegis of former fashion model and French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the Petit Palais museum in Paris put on the first posthumous retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent’s career with an exhibition of over 300 garments. To commemorate this event, a most distinguished work of art of a book called simply “YSL” was published to deconstruct the iconic designer while conserving his essence through interviews, essays, and photos.

In it, Pierre Bergé recounts his first meeting with Saint Laurent and the beginning of their relationship and business collaboration until the designer’s death in 2008. Bergé explained how YSL wanted his designs to have social relevance like those of the great fashion innovators Madeleine Vionnet, Coco Chanel, and Elsa Schiaparelli who preceded him. He disliked Balenciaga who he felt was a pure technician who made haute couture only for the upper classes. When he took over as Christian Dior’s creative director, he killed off Dior’s signature lady-like look with his debut collection featuring trapeze shaped dresses.

Saint Laurent was a talented individual with a strong temperament and character, in addition to an iron will to get what he wanted. He was plagued by severe depression and addicted to alcohol and drugs, which astonishingly contributed to his most beautiful and succesful collections. He was charismatic and made into an icon despite himself. He lived his life as a recluse, a celebrity who hid himself because of his inordinate shyness, which he deemed to be a major character flaw.

The book gives a faithful timeline of Saint Laurent’s life and work from his childhood to maturity, with milestones covering his grooming period as Dior’s heir to the start of his own haute couture house, his ready-to-wear collection “Rive Gauche,” and his perfume “Opium.”

Photos and essays reveal the revolutionary elements that were cornerstones of the YSL style. The pea jacket (caban), a sailor’s work jacket with a feminine twist; the tunic, which lengthened the silhouette and concealed the hips; the trench coat, adapted from garments worn by officers in the trenches of World War II; the tuxedo (le smoking) that upturned evening dressing conventions; the safari jacket (la saharienne), a staple in men’s wardrobe as characterized by Ernest Hemingway which blended perfectly into the social and political tumult of 1968 and blurred the distinction between masculine and feminine; and finally the trouser suit which empowered women by placing them on the same sartorial footing as men.

In his design, Saint Laurent focused on the body, gesture, and style. Worn on women, YSL clothes are free-flowing and always falling from the shoulder. The material is draped over the body and held together by pins at precise foldings. His aim was to make the garment skim over the body and barely touches it. A journalist once asked the designer how he could justify the very high price for a simple Rive Gauche jacket. Saint Laurent replied, “For ze cut!”

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy models this wedding dress calles "Doves", a tribute to Georges Brach, from 1988. This dress is on show at the retrospective. (Page 326 in "YSL")

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy models this wedding dress called "Doves", a tribute to Georges Brach, from 1988. This dress is on show at the retrospective. (Page 326 in "YSL")

Bound in a black hard cover with three primary colors for the designer’s initials,the book “YSL” comprises 388 glossy pages of archive photos, personal albums, design sketches, celebrity models and muses, colorful fabrics, as well as the details of the 307 outfits featured in the exhibition. It is an enduring joy to behold long after the show is over.

388 pages
Available for online order in French and English