What started out as a desperate plea to the universe for some face time with fellow fanatics ended with a road trip meet-up and enough couture inspiration to fill my iPhone’s storage capacity.
On Sunday, August 20th I co-hosted a visit to the Yves Saint Laurent Perfection of Style exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia.
As far as I can tell, the seed was planted on Instagram in mid-July when I shared how much my emotional sewing tank was filled during my visit to Brooks Ann Camper’s studio. I wanted more connections like that and asked my followers to let me know if they wanted to hang this summer.
Sewcial media answered with a heads-up from Henna that the YSL exhibit was coming to our part of the country. This was followed by a lets-do-it nudge from Brooks Ann who came through with the lion’s share of coordinating.
Thirteen sewcialists made the drive (some of us headed south, most headed north) to Richmond to meet each other and Monsieur Saint Laurent’s legacy of work.
Finding your own style is not easy, but once found it brings complete happiness. It gives you self-confidence, always. – YSL
This was my first fashion exhibit and I knew very little about the designer, so I gave myself a crash course by consuming a handful of retrospective articles, his obituary, a French-subtitled biopic on Netflix and Charlie Rose’s 2002 video interview with Anna Wintour where she reflects on the career of Yves Saint Laurent on the day he retired.
When I arrived, I was so enthralled with everything, I forgot to seal my education by reading the Runway Checklist program the museum provided.
I missed my chance to match in real time the 100 plus garments on display with their written profile at my fingertips. In hindsight, had I consulted the exhibit’s program, I might of suppressed the instinct to photograph what felt like every seam and swatch.
Short of paying for another ticket and going back to the museum (the temptation was strong), reliving the exhibit through my photos was the best way to gel what I’d learned with what I witnessed.
I took in EVERYthing.
But my my camera roll revealed a theme in my admiration. I was drawn to Yves’ sketches like gravity.
They were displayed throughout the exhibit, but the wall of croquis from his collections could’ve been a stand alone shrine.
I wanted to drown in the drawings, to stream them into my brain like a TV series.
There was a scene in the YSL movie where a young Saint Laurent falls apart from the pressure of running the house of Dior and declares that he just wants to be left alone to sketch. I empathized with his deep yearning to create admist real world responsibilities and began to see him as more than just a dresser of rich women.
Because his designs were brought to life by teams of people (most uncredited) and the museum’s proximity rules limited my inspection of their construction, I spent much of my time appreciating my favorite garments by matching them to their pencil births.
Organza “sailor sweater” cocktail dress embroidered with red, white and blue sequins. Spring-Summer 1966 haute couture collection
With garments lined up on stage to the left and his instructional vision for them on the right, it was a fascinating pencil tour of couture that lingers with me.
Born in 1936, YSL’s talent for drawing was nurtured by a childhood filled with free-range play and craft in French-colonized Oran, Algeria. By age 17 his sketches were powerful enough to win design competitions, earn him favor with the editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, and ultimately blow Christian Dior’s mind — enough to take on the young prodigy as an apprentice the first day they met in 1955.
This is a kid who dropped out of couture college because it bored him. I am not even sure if he knew how to sew.
But one thing was true. The boy could sketch his ass off.
Only three years after being promoted to assistant, the house’s financier named Saint Laurent as Dior’s successor when the 52-year old master passed away unexpectedly. Yves was only 21 years old when he became the youngest couturier in the world.
When I was his age I had a lot of experience with leadership — as an older sister to three younger siblings, running an after school program for junior high kids, and becoming a Resident Advisor in my college dorm as a Freshman — but none of my young adult training would’ve prepared me to run a house of luxury fashion design.
Diva-sized tantrums, therapy, and supporters who loved me enough to put up with me would be required.
All were part of Yves’ coping strategy.
All creative work is painful. And fashion is very, very difficult. It plays on all my anxieties. – YSL
Navy blue whipcord pea coat with matching belt. Spring-Summer 1967 haute couture collection.
If Pierre Bergé, an entrepreneur and “ring master of French culture“, hadn’t fallen hard for Yves and pulled off many emotional and financial rescues for the fragile designer, that first successful collection of trapeze silhouettes in 1958 would have been his one-hit wonder.
He went on to royally dissapoint Dior executives in 1960 with his nearly all black Beatnik collection of crocodile-skinned motorcycle jackets, mixed media minks, and other very un-Dior like street fashion trends. When YSL was drafted into the French army that same year and returned after only a few months (discharged after a nervous breakdown), the house of Dior took their chance and replaced him.
He and Bergé sued for breach of contract and used the settlement money – supplemented with backing from an Atlanta businessman and half the designers from Dior – to open Yves’ own house.
Red leather double-breasted coat. Autumn Winter 1970 haute couture collection.
The YSL origin story has more pioneering moments than other designers of his generation (like Karl Lagerfeld who took second place to Yves in the design competition that kicked off their careers).
Known for sketching out designs for entire collections in a matter of weeks (often at his retreat in Marrakech), Saint Laurent’s ability to illustrate the shapes in his imagination bordered on superhuman. The exhibit pointed out that the drawings he discussed with his chefs d’ateliers were quite specific and included details about “ergonomics, drape and the equilibrium that must be maintained between the fabric and the body”.
Learning this about him and the complex haute couture process helped me reconcile what was so special about his contribution. I kept looking for evidence that his hands could construct an actual garment.
I wanted him to reflect the image of a couturier I’d made up in my mind: A builder of elegant, custom garments with needle, measuring tape, muslin, AND pencil in hand.
Black wool ottoman jacket with gold, purple, and blue lamé yoke, gold cuffs, black silk velvet straight skirt. Ordered by Palamo Picasso. Autumn-Winter 1979 haute couture collection.
But with haute couture’s irrelevant budget and network of craftsmen, one can comfortably outsource the execution of beauty.
Haute couture conists of secrets whispered from generation to generation. If in ready-to-wear, a garment is manufactured according to standard sizes, the haute couture garment adapts to any imperfection in order to eliminate it. – YSL
Saint Laurent may not have directly produced his own garment patterns but his work and his house became a pattern for success that is still followed by designers and haute couture houses today.
He was basically knighted in 1985 by French President François Mitterrand and later president Nicolas Sarkozy declared the designer as “the first to elevate haute couture to the rank of art – and that gave him global influence.”
Wedding gown, multicolored silk velvet coat with appliqué letters forming the words LOVE ME FOREVER (front) OR NEVER (back) and heart, stars, and cloud in silk satin. Autumn-Winter 1970 haute couture collection.
We can thank Yves Saint Laurent for bringing us the styles that have flooded our wardrobes over the years. He stretched the conventions of silhouette and played with gender in a way that helped women explore their power.
Do you remember your first pea coat? I got my first one in high school like a rite of passage —navy blue with oversized buttons and requisite Gap label. Having grown up in California, I could’ve survived the 90s with my staple denim and camo army jackets. But putting on that pea coat gave my unfocused style some cool points at a time I needed them most.
Thank you, Yves.
Imagine Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign without a plague of pantsuits.
Thank you, Yves.
Pantsuit. Pinkish-beige gabardine jacket and pleated pants. Spring-Summer 1976 haute couture collection.
Four years before I was born, Bianca Jagger’s wedding tux was carefully crafted into history. To forever haunt and inspire me.
Thanks for the outfit goals, Yves.
Black silk jersey jumpsuit with long zipper and drawstring waist. Spring-Summer 1975 haute couture collection; “First” pantsuit. Black wool double-breasted jacket and pants with white pinstripes.
When he opened his ready-to-wear boutique on the left bank of the Seine river in 1968 – the Greenwich Village of Paris – he was beginning to democratize haute couture. According to the exhibit’s literature, the rive gauche brand offered modular options instead of “precisely matched outfits… leaving women to choose whatever combinations they wanted.”
He continued to push boundaries on the runway by:
- featuring black models on it
- daring to use ethnic elements and folklore as inspiration for his couture designs
- popularizing the wedding dress as the last outfit on the catwalk of all haute-couture collections
- debuting avant garde garments
Short evening dress. Homage to George Braque. Black barathea weave belted dress with two white cotton piqué doves. Adornments by Lemarié.
When I learned that Saint Laurent invented the concept of a designer having a living retrospective with his 1983 show at the New York MET, I realized he would’ve been right as home as a blogger. Of course he would’ve farmed out the work to his couture social media team. His fantasy blog would have an Instagram account with celebrity fittings in the stories.
I’d follow him and double tap all of the toile photos.
Seeing the progress of couture is my absolute favorite part of this informal course in designer appreciation. I was happy to see some test garments in the exhibit. It was a helpful reminder of how a muslin mockup can be a beautiful, precise prediction.
Beige organza evening dress embroidered with purple, pink, silver, and beige beads and sequins with beaded fringe. Embroider by Lessage. Spring-Summer 1994 haute couture collection.
Speaking of predictability, every one of us had a had a silent moment of homage to YSL’s homage to pop art. The Mondrian dress alone was worth the price of admission.
The genius of that color blocked wool jersey thrills me to no end!
Homage to Piet Mondrian. Wool jersey cocktail dress with ivory, black, blue, red, and yellow piecing. Autumn-Winter 1965 haute couture collection
It was at this point in my tour that I broke protocol to peek under hems looking for finishing techniques.
The museum frowns on that. To the security guy on duty that day who kindly informed me to keep my distance, I am sorry for scowling at you.
Your job is important.
Without you, my fingerprints would be a part of fashion history.
Homage to Pop Art. (Left) Dark blue wool jersey cocktail dress with red wool jersey crescent moon piecing and irregular strips of light blue and black. (Right) Green wool jersey cocktail dress with heart-shaped pink piecing and uneven strip of blue. Autumn-Winter 1966 haute couture collection.
Since I can’t go back in time to try on the garments that nearly got me banned from the museum, I took a moment to virtually try one on.
My pre-exhibit research led me to a kitschy ad for two of YSL’s pop art dresses worn by black models with sky-scraping hairstyles and mod poses.
Homage to Tom Wesselmann. Purple wool jersey with pink piecing. Autumn-Winter 1966 haute couture collection.
What would the dress look like on my proportions?
There. My custom croquis is wearing a custom YSL dress that I can appreciate without attempting any heroics to sew it. Though sourcing some yardage of epic wool jersey might change my tune.
Dressing is a way of life….. it can give you freedom and liberation, help you to find yourself and to move without restraint. – YSL
I don’t have an iconic French designer’s skill at drawing or days to hide myself away in peace to do it, but with steady practice my sketching will mature and begin to reveal my elusive personal style. So I can carry on with my mission to sew it.
It is very cool and serendipitous that Yves had similar priorities.
Even after taking this time to share what I learned about Yves Saint Laurent, I am still processing the experience. This is the dude whose ideas for the graceful avoidance of nudity dressed me and my mother’s generation. I think it will take some time to fully comprehend his talents.
I am grateful for the nerdy pilgrimage. Even wore my best handmade dress as a nod to the house.
Meeting up with women who “get it” made the event a complete treat.
Plans to hang out, swap supplies, and stay in touch were made with enthusiasm.
The Richmond exhibit ended Sunday. There was one in Seattle prior. If all of this makes you curious, keep your ears to the ground for its arrival at a museum near you.
To learn more in the meantime, this timeline from 1936 to 2013 is a handy account of the designer’s life and work.
I leave you with more photos from the exhibit.
VMFA, if you are reading this…note the lack of flash photography. The one rule of yours I managed to follow. If you let me back in, I promise to heed the rest.