Yves Saint Laurent: the death of a fashion king

Yves Saint Laurent was the Sixties' most flamboyant fashion king whose creations caught the spirit of the decade. He died at the age of 71 from brain cancer.

Yves Saint Laurent's great moment of ascendancy came in 1968 when, in a television interview, Coco Chanel anointed him her spiritual heir. The reaction of the maestro, who died this week of brain cancer aged 71, was laced with a typical foreboding, says The New Yorker. "So they crowned me king," he remarked. "Look what happened to all the other kings of France."

As former lover and lifelong business partner Pierre Berg once said, Saint Laurent was "born with a nervous breakdown". Yet despite his fragile physical and emotional health, Saint Laurent's muse never deserted him. "He always did it first and he always did it with panache," says The Daily Telegraph.

Few top designers can boast even one really big idea, says the FT. Saint Laurent produced half a dozen. He was first to experiment with trapeze lines, the beatnik look, transparency and safari chic. His Mondrian print A-line dresses caught the spirit of the 1960s, but his tour de force was probably the 1966 "Le Smoking" (see below). Women had worn trouser suits before, "but by hijacking men's eveningwear Saint Laurent tapped into its louche connotations, tacitly placing women on an equal sexual footing with men", says The Times.

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At the peak of his celebrity, when he was hanging out with the Warhol crowd, or posing nude for his Opium perfume brand, Saint Laurent majored on being an enfant terrible. But he made his explosive debut in the 1950s as Christian Dior's teenaged "dauphin". Born in Oran, Algeria in 1936, to prosperous middle-class parents, his mother (who survives him), let him cut up her clothes to make rag dolls. At 17, he won a prestigious design competition and was spotted by his hero, Dior. When Dior died suddenly in 1957, Saint Laurent, then just 21, was catapulted to the head of France's most prestigious fashion house. After his first collection, Le Figaro proclaimed "Saint Laurent has saved France".

Saint Laurent's radicalism didn't sit easily with everyone in the House of Dior, says The Daily Telegraph. In 1961 the top brass allegedly arranged to have him conscripted. Within 20 days, he suffered a breakdown and was "incarcerated in a military psychiatric hospital" until rescued by Pierre Berg, who sued Dior for breach of contract and used the money to establish Saint Laurent in his own house. It is safe to say that Saint Laurent was no businessman, says The New Yorker.

The big push into ready-to-wear and branding was orchestrated by Berg, who later arranged the 1994 sale of Yves Saint Laurent to Elf Sanofi. The deal was controversial (Berg was investigated for insider trading) but it made the two men a £40m paper profit each. Yet Saint Laurent came to regret losing his label, which was eventually bought by Gucci. "The poor guy does what he can," was his take on the designs of his successor, Tom Ford.

Saint Laurent became increasingly reclusive, dividing his time between his homes in Deauville and Marrakech, which he shared with a succession of bulldogs all named Moujik. He battled depression and addiction, but his final show, in 2002, was treated by the French as an event of national significance. "Yves Saint Laurent was the last of his kind and the fashion world will deeply mourn his passing," concludes the Evening Standard. "But his legacy is everywhere."

Yves Saint Laurent: A fashion trailblazer

"Forget burning bras," says Linda Grant in The Guardian. "Feminism was built on the trouser suit" the most transformative garment since Chanel's little black dress. Yves Saint Laurent understood the "huge range of roles that women were about to play" and set out to dress them accordingly. "For two decades he had his finger right on the button of the times."

Saint Laurent didn't invent ready-to-wear, says The New Yorker: that was down to Pierre Cardin. But he was the first couturier "to make a cult of it", marketing his Rive Gauche line globally to a hip, baby-boom clientele. Saint Laurent's innovation was "an expression of changing times rather than a revolution in itself", says John Gapper in the FT. But his death reminds us "that fashion matters". "He struck a blow for equality in the workplace and should be remembered for it."

And his clothes were far from the only innovation, notes a leader in the same paper: the Yves Saint Laurent marketing machine, which majored on opulent product launch parties, was the forerunner of many a modern launch, and his off-the-peg lines paved the way for current global chains, such as Zara and H&M, which offer striking clothes at near disposable prices. Saint Laurent would probably have quibbled about the quality, but he always favoured simplicity. "Fashion dies but style remains," he observed. His chief regret? "I wish I had invented jeans."