Couture as art

By Alidor Aucoin on July 10, 2008

Death can sometimes be a good career move for an artist. Yves Saint Laurent is a case in point. Before he died on June 1, Saint Laurent was considered a brilliant, influential designer whose career in recent years stood still as he wasted his enormous talent on cocaine and alcohol.

But after his death, attendance at the retrospective of 145 of his outfits at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts picked up. To date, more than 30,000 have visited the exhibition in the Michael and Renata Hornstein Pavilion.

Saint Laurent, who produced his first collection in 1957 when he was 17, took the reins of the House of Dior at 21, and opened his own house in 1962 brought haute couture out of a rut.

He once defined a dress as “a scenario, a story,” and, as this show demonstrates, his clothing was not only technical, but sexual.

An art gallery seems an odd place for a retrospective of a fashion designer¹s work, but the MMFA makes a persuasive case that Yves Saint Laurent was an artist who found raw material for his imagination in works by Braque, Mondrian, Picasso, Bonnard or Matisse.

His sense of colour seems to derive more from painting than fashion.

“He was one of the 20th century’s great couturiers, and his creations are things of great beauty,” explained MMFA director, Nathalie Bodil. “He appropriated masculine codes of dress, creating a wardrobe for modern women who were stepping out of traditional roles. This was in stark contrast to the notion of dressing women as Barbie dolls. His inspiration was nurtured by a beautiful soul.” Saint Laurent was homosexual, but he adored women and his garments were conceived directly on a woman’s body resulting in stunning fashion that made them even more attractive to men.

It’s a remarkable and timely show, the first since the Costume Institute of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art staged a retrospective of his work in 1983.

Everything is there: the phallic wedding dress, the designer’s favourite smocks in their infinite lengths, his elegant evening gowns, marinière blazer pant, trenchcoat, shawl, ruffled blouses, poncho cloaks and gypsy skirts and white jerseys with Mondrian bands of colour.

The exhibition space is divided into four categories: The Stroke of a Pencil, a collection of the designer’s sketches; The YSL Revolution, which shows how he used men’s fashion as an influence in his designs for women; The Palette, which highlights his use of fabric and colour; and Lyrical Sources, a showcase of his artistic influences.

Saint Laurent often said there are three kinds of fashion designers in the world: those who work honestly at their metier, but who are dull; those who turn out Mickey Mouse fashion, and Les grands, those who produce and influence fashion. Clearly, he considered himself, along with Chanel and Balenciaga, as one of Les Grands.

The glowing exhibition of his work at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was.


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