I think that few designers are as iconic and influential as Yves Saint Laurent. Current designers frequently reference Coco Chanel and to a lesser degree, Vionnet, Poiret and Madame Gres, but out of all of those, Saint Laurent is the only one that has lived to see it. One of the only ones whose influence is still felt in the way we dress today.
There are three iconic YSL looks that come to my head as soon as I hear his name. First there is his safari collection (Betty Catroux is wearing the safari tunic and thigh-high boots in the first image). There is something so chic about even a white blouse worn with khakis, and that is definitely a feeling sparked by Saint Laurent. Another collection that immediately pops in my head is the Mondrian collection. Now, I've always loved Mondrian, so I may be biased in my opinion, but there is something so playful and secretly fabulous about a simple shift with an arresting graphic print. And while Saint Laurent wasn't the first designer to incorporate art into his work (nor would he be the last), he certainly knew how to make it the most memorable (I am still hoping to have this in my closet some day).
And last, but certainly not least Le Smoking. Even the name alone conjures up strange and alluring images of the woman who gets to wear it, and it was made even more iconic, through the eye of Helmut Newton, who shot it on a waifish, androgynous model with slick-backed hair, mysterious eyes and a cigarette in a desolated, moonlit (one imagines) street in Paris. If you look at the image long enough, you realize that there is no other way this suit could've been captured for posterity. In just one shot, Newton transmitted both the sensuality of a woman in menswear and Saint Laurent's impeccable desire to please women. The fact that we get to wear pants today for any occasion is taken for granted, but a big part of it is definitely the handiwork of the master himself.
Now that he's passed and I've been reading obituaries and articles left and right, I realize that Yves Saint Laurent is truly one of the greats. Yes, he was the youngest person to ever head a Couture house, but in his life, he far surpassed the importance and influence of those who came before him, including Christian Dior himself. He and Coco Chanel are, in my opinion, the only two designers to have reached such instantly recognizable looks and silhouettes that are referenced today all the time simply because by now they are just part of our psyche.
His successors at Rive Gauche have certainly had their hands full over the years, dealing with both the house's history as well as what's relevant now and even though all three of them have hit on one aspect of his spirit, none of them has yet captured his entire imagination. I have just spent a great amount of time over on Style.com looking at their coverage of Saint Laurent's last collection, when he retired, for Spring 2002, which featured 278 looks of his best ideas throughout the years. It is really impressive and sort of humbling to see the wide array of styles and silhouettes that he pioneered or made his own and how it always maintained a special Saint Laurent feeling, be it through its quiet romantic-ness or its bold approach to sexuality.
Alber Elbaz was unknown back then and perhaps it's why they didn't give him a longer chance to prove himself at the house. Looking at his designs back then and now it sometimes seems a little strange that they are by the same person. Nowadays no one makes a romantic, feminine dress that stands out better than Elbaz. Although his clothes were beautiful and easy-to-wear, Alber's vision lacked a certain joyfulness for life and being a woman. They were very serious clothing for empowered women, but that's not all that Saint Laurent was.
After Alber Elbaz, Tom Ford stepped up to the game and as usual, he brought a healthy dose of sex appeal to the runway. Typical Tom Ford of course, but also not far behind from Saint Laurent's way creative vision (just mashed up in his brain with all other visual elements that he picked up throughout the years). The Ford years sort of put YSL back in the map, although the looks were still not totally immersed in the Saint Laurent attitude. They were missing a feeling of adventure.
And then came Stefano Pilati who has had a very weird road when it comes to his collections. It seems that initially everyone hates what he does, or doesn't get it and then a couple of months later, when his looks are being ripped off and incorporated into the mainstream market, then everyone comes around and sees what a beautiful job he's done. He is definitely the designer that has come the closest to capturing the Saint Laurent spirit, but applying it to modern times. His last two collections have been sober (Spring 08) and quietly violent in their quasi-military/hardcore influence (Fall 08), and I had completely forgotten about his first collection for the house and how amazingly romantic, lady-like and sexy it was. Pilati is definitely in the right path to carve out a name for himself as well as keep the Saint Laurent tradition alive without resorting to homages and straight copies from the archives. He gets the spirit and I think under his helm the Saint Laurent house will continue to thrill and inspire us.