To celebrate Yves Saint Laurent’s birthday (Aug. 1, 1936), we look back at the colorful life of this legendary fashion designer who forever changed the world of haute couture through his fearless approach to high fashion—at times irreverent but always empowering. He was once quoted to have said: “I participated in the transformation of my era. I did it with clothes, which is surely less important than music, architecture, painting…but whatever it’s worth, I did it.” No doubt he did it. Beneath every haute couture collection he introduced is a story of his formidable legacy. Here are a few fashion moments that clearly depict how Yves Saint Laurent changed fashion.
He paved the way for the birth of androgynous fashion.
In many ways, Yves Saint Laurent was a man ahead of his times. In an era when it was unthinkable for women to wear men’s suits, he introduced the Le Smoking suit. Since it was launched in 1966, the androgynous tuxedo suit has since reached iconic status, becoming the antithesis of the Little Black Dress and embraced by women—including celebrities like Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli and Lauren Bacall—who are unafraid to make a rebellious statement: “If men can wear this, so can I!” Like most designs that push the boundary, Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking suit was initially met with criticism. In fact, a few upscale restaurants and hotels with strict dress codes were said to have turned down female guests who showed up wearing the designer’s then avant-garde suit. One famous story was that New York socialite Nan Kempner was turned away from Le Cote Basque for wearing the tuxedo suit. In true defiant form, Kempner removed her trousers and walked back into the restaurant wearing the androgynous jacket as a mini dress. But perhaps none could match the rebellious spirit of Bianca Jagger, who famously wore a white Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo when she married Mick Jagger in 1971.
While art and fashion are first-cousins and it’s a natural process for one to be inspired by the other, the Algerian-born designer fully embraced art inspirations in his collections, as evident by his Mondrian dress. The classic 60s shift has seen a reinvention when Yves Saint Laurent used it as a canvas and added bold block prints to it, paying homage to modern constructivism and to his favorite Dutch artist, Pierre Mondrian. The signature Mondrian dress was part of Yves Saint Laurent’s 1965 Fall Women’s collection and was featured on the September 1965 cover of French Vogue. Today, the Mondrian dress is permanently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In keeping with the new wave of feminism in the 60s, Yves Saint Laurent introduced tops constructed using see-through fabric that revealed women’s breasts. It was a risque move, but this collection spoke highly of how the designer put the woman first in his designs. “Over the years I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it,” he once said.
Today, one look at YSL’s Instagram account, and it’s undeniable that Yves Saint Laurent’s mantra of empowering women to dress freely is still evident in the brand’s modern collections.
He introduced ready-to-wear fashion.
While he is, no doubt, a force to reckon with in haute couture, Yves Saint Laurent changed fashion when he introduced the world to ready-to-wear fashion. After leaving Christian Dior as artistic director, he founded his own brand and launched Yves Saint Rive Gauche in 1966. The ready-to-wear line was accessible and more affordable—clearly directed toward the younger market.
Perhaps one of Yves Saint Laurent’s greatest contributions in haute couture is his commitment to bring diversity in fashion. In fact, Saint Laurent was among the early adopters of diversity, embracing black models on the runway, particularly Iman, Katoucha Niane and Dalma Callado who were among his early muses. In a past interview, Naomi Campbell credited him for helping her land her first French Vogue cover.
Before his passing in 2008, Yves Saint Laurent became the first living designer honored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a solo exhibition in 1983. Without a doubt, Yves Saint Laurent has forever changed fashion. “Fashions fade, style is eternal,” he once said. Which Yves Saint Laurent iconic fashion moment do you love the most? Let's chat, shall we?