Review: Yves Saint Laurent Exhibit at Seattle Art Museum

Uncovering the Layers of a Master Designer

If you’re a woman, odds are Yves Saint Laurent influenced a piece of clothing hanging in your closet. His legacy on fashion design transitioned from reinventing Dior’s A-line collection to dressing women in tuxedos. Seattle Art Museum is currently hosting 100 YSL looks in a new exhibit about the designer. Below, Art Director Kirsten Erwin and Assistant Editor Lauren Foster, the duo that produced 425’s latest fashion spread, discuss the unexpected and impressive elements of the exhibit.

The exhibit runs through Jan. 8.

LF: Okay, we’ll get to the clothes. But, before I really looked any garments, I learned that Yves Saint Laurent was bullied as a child. He found refuge in his own imaginary world. It’s always fascinating to see how art, or music, or design can blossom out of a painful time. I’ve always thought of YSL as having this terrifically glamorous life. And while that may be in part true, he was also often suffering from manic depression and drug addiction. Seeing the complexity of the human underneath the intricacy of his fashion design really humanized him for me.

KE: I was thinking about that a lot too — we are used to seeing these impossibly beautiful photos of him with the people he surrounded himself with, that shiny, sparkly, glamorous party life. But there was pain under that veneer it sounds like, throughout his whole life.

For me the biggest and happiest surprise was what a master he was at drawing; I never realized that before. The amount of information he was able to convey in a sketch as far as how a garment would fit and move, and each line so perfectly placed. Each of his sketches could stand on their own as a beautiful piece of art, and seeing hundreds and hundreds of them lining an entire room — that blew me away.

LF: Yes! His sketches are remarkable and carried the attitude and grace of his most famous designs. I thought the exhibit did a good job of highlighting the details that went into his work. There’s hundreds of sketches, cloth samples in every color, a large case of vintage earrings, necklaces, and broaches he used. Together they show what a brilliant designer and stylist he was. Every mannequin is decorated with accessories – from hats to gold stockings to gloves to feather head pieces.

It was also interesting to see the progression of his career and how his designs shifted. His work changes so dramatically that I couldn’t help but think, ‘how is it possible that the same guy made the Le Smoking tuxedo and the Mondrian dress?’ Also, fun fact. An employee at SAM told me that the garments were shipped to the museum in giant wooden crates – the size of 1 garment lying flat – because the clothes cannot be folded. It took an hour for two people to unpack each one.

Yves Saint Laurent, Collection board, Fall-Winter 1965 haute couture collection. © Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent.

Yves Saint Laurent, Collection board, Fall-Winter 1965 haute couture collection. © Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent.

Do you think there’s something signature YSL to each look or do you think he wanted to separate himself from his past work and reinvent his style?

KE: It seems like he reinvented himself over and over throughout his career, and you’re right that there was a staggering degree of variety. But I also saw common threads throughout — color was a big one. Another I noticed was drawing from other cultures and parts of the world (African and Middle Eastern prints, Russian folk costume-inspired gowns). And just, unabashed femininity. Ruffles, lace, bows, richly draped fabrics, and those super scandalous sheer tops. Even in the menswear-inspired clothing, they just hug the female form in such a decadent way. And are super sexy!

One thing I did wonder, and I guess this isn’t unique to him — how some of this would look on average non-model bodies. All his muses (Betty Catroux, Loulou de la Falaise) had lanky, boyish, 70s-thin frames. But I actually feel like a lot of his stuff would work beautifully on a fuller body too. Did you think about that at all?

LF: You’re so right. He had this ability to show off a woman’s curves and natural sex appeal. I would love to see Beyonce or Salma Hayek in one of his suits. The body standards for models in our world is something I really struggle with. In September, Tim Gunn wrote a great piece in the Washington Post about how the industry has yet to really open itself to women of all sizes. He says, “for decades, designers have trotted models with bodies completely unattainable for most women down the runway. First it was women so thin that they surely had eating disorders. After an outcry, the industry responded by putting young teens on the runway, girls who had yet to exit puberty. More outrage.” It’s a great read, but maybe I’m getting off track…

Clothes. When we were walking through, I noticed that Vogue editor Hammish Bowles paused to look closely at a three piece smoking suit. I asked him if he was looking at anything in particular. He said the suit was his and he had loaned it to SAM. If I could have anything in the whole exhibit, I’d be like Mr. Bowles and own a smoking suit. Like all of YSL’s designs, it’s a piece of perfection. But, it also represents a historic landmark for women and fashion. Many women didn’t wear pants in 1966 when it was first introduced. How he made a menswear staple irresistibly sexy changed women’s wardrobes forever.  Although, in many ways it was slow moving. Did you know that women senators were not allowed to wear pants on the senate floor until 1993? I’m wearing pants as I type this. YSL had a part in that. That’s kind of amazing. 1993!!

If you could run off with one piece what would it be?

KE: Oh man. I’d be pretty tempted by a of the wide-leg pantsuit, but I think the ultimate winner would have to be the Mondrian dress. I remember seeing photos of that dress as a kid, so it was incredible to see it in person. And it looks just as good today as it did when it was first designed.

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