Yves Saint Laurent, one of the greatest fashion designers in history, died at his home in Paris late Sunday at 71 after a long, undisclosed illness. He had been bedridden recently and friends said in the last week he had been unable to eat or talk. Saint Laurent had been rarely seen over the last year, and even then he was wheelchair bound and weak.
The designer’s health had been precarious throughout his life. At age 21, he burst onto the scene as the sensational new designer at Christian Dior, replacing the late Monsieur Dior himself. The bespectacled, shy, soft-spoken designer quickly became an icon — and would remain so for the next five decades.
Informed of Saint Laurent’s death, Oscar de la Renta said: “His circle had become smaller than small and he saw only his closest and most loyal friends — Loulou de la Falaise, Betty Catroux, Pierre Bergé.…He marked a period of fashion in an extraordinary and exciting way. He had an eye for color, an eye for the exotic. At one point, for a very long time, he was the king of fashion. Everyone wanted to be Yves Saint Laurent. He was such an unbelievably gifted man. He sketched beautifully, he wrote beautifully.
“He’s my big fashion hero and always has been and it’s really sad that he’s gone,” said Marc Jacobs Sunday night of Saint Laurent’s death. “I just think to me and to so many others he has been such a great inspiration in terms of everything, first and foremost in terms design. Saint Laurent was the first to look at youth and street culture and take elements and make them chic.
Yet Saint Laurent always seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the fashion world. On the one hand capable of breathtaking creativity, the pressures continually wore on his nervous nature and he would disappear for months to recuperate. There were so many warnings over the state of his health through the Eighties and Nineties that they became a type of macabre joke — rivaled only by quips over what color his hair would be when he would take his bow.
Throughout his life, Saint Laurent shunned the spotlight. With homes in Paris and New York, a villa in Marrakech and a chateau in Normandy, he could create his own environments. He owned paintings by Goya, Matisse, Leger, Munch, Klee, Picasso and Cezanne but it was the writer Marcel Proust whose work most informed his life. At Chateau Gabriel, a 19th-century castle in Normandy that he owned jointly with Bergé, all the guest rooms were named for Proustian characters.
He was a voracious reader, with Christian Berard, Jean Cocteau, Orlean Petit, Louis Jouvet — and, of course, Proust — among his favorites. He said he never wanted to finish reading “Remembrance of Things Past” because he couldn’t bear to part with it.
His parents wanted him to study law. He wanted to go to Paris and study art. In 1953, when he was 17, he did. A year later, he met Michel de Brunhoff, director of the French edition of Vogue, and sold him some sketches. At de Brunhoff’s suggestion, Saint Laurent entered a contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat. One of the judges was Christian Dior, who looked at the drawings and realized they had a startling similarity to his own sketches. Saint Laurent was hired as an assistant
He said his happiest and most productive period was the late Sixties and early Seventies, during which he introduced his “rich peasant” look, his gangster tuxedos and his “tarty” Forties collection.
“I work because I have to,” he said, “not to make money, but for the people who depend on me. If I don’t create the next collection, and the collection after that, they will end up on the streets.”
At the end of October 2002, Saint Laurent left his atelier and his office for the last time. “I am much more at peace now,” he told WWD, adding he had no regrets. “I am not sad — just nostalgic.”
At 1 p.m. Saint Laurent left the premises for the last time, his faithful dog, Moujik, in tow.
Over the next six years, the designer would devote himself to the foundation, mounting exhibitions culled from the house’s vast archives. He would appear in public occasionally, always saying he was glad to be out of fashion.
After all, as Saint Laurent said in a phrase that could serve as his mantra, “Fashions fade. Style is eternal.”