On January 29, 1962, Yves Saint Laurent presented his inaugural collection under his own name in the fashion house he had just acquired on rue Spontini in Paris. He was 25 at the time. The show opened with a chic pink and green plaid suit, and was followed by 103 other outfits.

Two hours later, the show was over and history was written. Saint Laurent, the couturier who gave women the Le Smoking tuxedo suit – plus the trench coat, safari jacket and black leather boots among many other 1960s innovations that have become a modern wardrobe staple – was on his way to becoming one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century.

Sixty years later, six of the most august art museums in Paris have joined forces to present an exhibition, Yves Saint Laurent at the Museums, which illustrates the role played by the fine arts in the creations of Saint Laurent. The creations of the late couturier are exhibited in museums alongside the works that inspired them.

Works of art

Her 1965 Mondrian dress is juxtaposed with the Mondrian painting she references at the Center Pompidou. Jackets and dresses inspired by Picasso rub shoulders with works by the Spanish painter at the Picasso Museum in Paris. And a huge colorful painting by Raoul Dufy from 1937 in the Museum of Modern Art serves as the backdrop for electric-hued satin evening dresses that demonstrate Saint Laurent’s extraordinary artistry with color.

Saint Laurent was the first living designer, and still at his creative peak, to be the subject of a major retrospective in 1983 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York under the sharp-eyed curatorship of acclaimed editor Diana Vreeland. He will spend 40 years at the head of his fashion house, and it is only his 21st birthday. Then followed exhibitions in Beijing and Paris in 1985 and 1986 respectively, then a major retrospective at the Petit Palais in Paris in 2010, two years after his death.

Madison Cox, President of the Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation, wanted to mark the 60th anniversary of the inauguration of the house with “something spectacular and different”, highlighting the overflowing creativity of the designer through his relation to art. What is unprecedented is that it is an exhibition scattered across Paris in different museums which, in addition to those mentioned, include the Louvre Museum, the Orsay Museum and the Pierre Berge-Yves Foundation Saint Laurent at 5 avenue Marceau, where the couture house moved in 1974 and now houses the designer’s archives and museum.

All [the museum presidents] knew Saint Laurent’s passion for art, its importance for his creativity [and] his importance as a collector

Mouna Mekouar, co-curator, Saint Laurent retrospective

What has been achieved is a unique collaboration. Co-curator Mouna Mekouar, alongside Cox and Stephan Janson, looks back on the first conversations on Zoom with the presidents of the various art museums during the pandemic in the spring of 2020.

“It was really moving to see how enthusiastic and committed they were from the first meeting,” says Mekouar. “The museums were closed and we didn’t know what would happen to each of us, but there was a new kind of solidarity between them.”

Bringing fashion into these museums and exhibiting them alongside major works of art in their permanent collections is unusual, but the presidents of the museums have understood the genius of Saint Laurent.

“They all knew his passion for art, its importance for his creativity. They also knew of his importance as a collector, and that he was someone who loved and helped museums. [many pieces from Saint Laurent’s private art collection were donated to them]. So this exhibition has meaning for them.”

In a refined style

A painting by Raoul Dufy from 1937 circles YSL sets from the 1990s, on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris.  Photo: Nicolas Matheus

Saint Laurent was the first fashion designer to establish a genuine dialogue with contemporary artists and the arts of the past. In 1965, when Piet Mondrian was little known in France, the couturier was inspired by the Dutch artist’s color-block graphic abstract paintings and created a group of jersey shirts full of momentum and visual drama. They were greeted on the runway with a standing ovation and boosted Mondrian’s popularity in France.

As Saint Laurent would later say of his relationship to art: “Mondrian, of course, who was the first [who] I dared to approach in 1965, whose rigor could not fail to charm me, but also Matisse, Braque, Picasso, Bonnard and Léger. How could I have resisted pop art, which was the expression of my youth?

To wonder if a couturier can be considered as an artist, or an artist as a couturier is no longer relevant.

Mouna Mekouar

The Museum of Modern Art in Paris is exhibiting a pair of ultra-feminine printed organza evening ensembles designed in 2001 as a tribute to the impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard. At the Musée Picasso Paris, a 1979 jacket hangs next to Picasso’s portrait of French model and surrealist artist Nusch Eluard, who wears a similar jacket designed by Elsa Schiaparelli. In this jacket alone, Mekouar points out, Saint Laurent pays homage to Picasso, Eluard and Schiaparelli – these are the layers of meaning it has invested in its designs.

Other YSL tributes to Picasso, exhibited at the Picasso Museum in Paris.  Photo: Nicolas Matheus

Picasso had a profound influence on Saint Laurent, who turned cubism into couture with their Picasso-inspired detailing on dresses.

At the Musée d’Orsay, an exhibition of Le Smoking tuxedos and a series of Belle Epoque-inspired dresses designed in 1971 for the famous Proust ball launched by Baron Guy de Rothschild. Marcel Proust was another famous influence on the designer who regularly re-read the writer’s masterpiece The research. However, another aspect of her work appears in the opulent Galerie d’Apollon du Louvre: paying homage to the know-how of the embroiderers and small hands of her workshop.

When the Louvre curator finished installing the luxuriously gilded and embroidered YSL jackets alongside the French antiques and artwork that had inspired their design, she told Mekouar she had a feeling the jackets were there. from the beginning, “that they were part of the room”.

The exhibitions around the various museums reveal the depth and profound beauty of Saint Laurent’s work. At the Yves Saint Laurent Museum on Avenue Marceau, the exhibition continues with access to Saint Laurent’s original design studio, design sketches, more from his archives and the spectacular Van Gogh Sunflowers jacket which took 600 hours to be embroidered by François Lesage’s team with 350,000 sequins. Saint Laurent asked Lesage to recreate the brushstrokes and color palette making the jacket itself a painting.

Advancing the Arts

Yves Saint Laurent.  Djemaa El Fna square.  Photo by Reginald Gray

The couturier, who had art in his heart, retired at the age of 65 in January 2002 with a spectacular 90-minute fashion show at the Center Pompidou. He died in 2008, but his legacy is such that the exhibit has brought visitors back to museums, encouraging them to explore the various institutions.

There is no beginning or end to the journey through this constellation of exhibits; a visitor can visit as many museums as he wishes, “perhaps exploring those he does not know”, explains Mekouar. It is also to encourage a young generation, eager to learn about the art of couturier fashion, to explore the permanent collections of major museums.

The curator, who comes from the world of contemporary art rather than fashion, says “wondering whether a couturier can be considered as an artist, or an artist as a couturier is no longer relevant”. The two are inextricably linked, as Saint Laurent has amply proven.

The exhibition is presented at the Picasso Museum in Paris until April 15; at Yves Saint Laurent at the Museums at the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris until May 15; at the Louvre Museum and the Center Pompidou until May 16; and at the Yves Saint Laurent Paris Museum until September 18

Updated: March 23, 2022, 1:06 p.m.