For his time—which wasn't very long ago—Algerian-born Yves Saint Laurent was a game-changer. His designs shaped the way women dressed and paved the way for a new sense of femininity that moved away from dresses and skirts. If Coco Chanel is often credited as the designer to accelerate the popularity of women wearing trousers, Yves Saint Laurent took it a step further and introduced his now-signature le smoking—a shapely tuxedo stripped right off the backs of men but adapted to suit womanly curves.
It's difficult to comprehend that the established fashion house built by the French couturier together with his business partner Pierre Bergé, is only less than 60 years old. Through those years and even before that, Saint Laurent has kept his muses and countless of fans excited about his designs; no matter if they were critically acclaimed or panned by fashion critics.
As we remember Saint Laurent on his unfortunate passing ten years ago today, we gathered ten facts about his illustrious life and career that you probably might not have known. And what a life indeed.
1. He worked for Christian Dior before starting his own label.
At 21 years old, Saint Laurent became the head designer of the House of Dior after being personally selected by Christian Dior himself shortly before his death in 1957. Prior to taking on the role, Saint Laurent would submit sketches of his designs for Dior's couture line, which Dior grew to notice and accept as seasons went by.
It was in 1960 that Saint Laurent's relationship with Dior ended. He was ordered to serve in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence and received bad reviews from the press and clients for his 1960 collection for Dior—he introduced a leather jacket for haute couture—which resulted in his termination from Dior. Saint Laurent then sued Dior for breach of contract, won the lawsuit and proceeded to set up his own fashion house with his business partner.
2. He went through electroshock therapy.
The stress of receiving news of his firing from Dior while serving the army as well as getting hazed by fellow soldiers, drove Saint Laurent to depression. He was sent to a mental hospital just 20 days into his service and was given doses of sedatives and drugs. Electroshock therapy was also used in hopes of curing his mental health.
3. He fell in love with a city.
Saint Laurent visited Morocco for the first time in 1966 and that experience later influenced his work. Morocco, specifically Marrakech, is often credited for introducing Saint Laurent to the use of colours in his designs. He would later make it a point to travel to the city every 1 December and 1 June to design his haute couture collections. Saint Laurent and Bergé then bought over Majorelle Garden, saving it from being turned into a hotel, and made a nearby villa their home in Marrakech.
4. He championed non-white models.
Saint Laurent was the first to hire non-caucasian models for his runway shows in Paris. In an interview with British Channel 4 news, supermodel Naomi Campbell credited Saint Laurent for helping her land a cover: "My first Vogue cover ever was because of this man, because when I said to him 'Yves, they won’t give me a French Vogue cover, they won’t put a black girl on the cover' and he was like ‘I’ll take care of that,’ and he did."
5. Pierre Bergé and Saint Laurent were together for a long time.
Both men met in 1958 during a dinner organised by then Paris editor of Harper's Bazaar. Although their romantic relationship reportedly ended in 1972, they remained business partners. The New York Times reported that days before Saint Laurent's death in 2008, both of them decided to create a French union known as a 'civil pact of solidarity' that brings some semblance of rights and responsibilities short of a marriage.
6. In 2014, there were two films dedicated to his life.
The two films, Yves Saint Laurent and Saint Laurent, both depicted the life of Saint Laurent but were not marketed as documentaries. However, only Yves Saint Laurent was given the green light by Pierre Bergé and thus, could have arguably been controlled to portray certain events in more favourable lights.
7. Someone paid a lot of money for a nude photo of Saint Laurent.
How much does a nude photograph of Saint Laurent cost? At a Christie's auction on June 2010, the famous nude photograph of Saint Laurent by Jeanloup Sieff—used as the advertising campaign for Yves Saint Laurent's first men's fragrance in 1971—went for EUR39,800 from an earlier estimate of EUR15,000.
8. Two museums were built in 2017 in his honour.
Saint Laurent's love for both Paris and Marrakech was encapsulated with the establishment of two museums in the same year. Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris focuses on the life and legacy of the couturier, and features more retrospective exhibitions. Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech on the other hand, curates art exhibits by Moroccan artists and designers with a relatively smaller selection of haute couture pieces by Saint Laurent.
9. He beat Karl Largerfeld in a competition.
At the age of 18—and before he worked for Christian Dior—Saint Laurent entered an international design competition, International Wool Secretariat. He was awarded the winner, beating future rival (in career and romance) Karl Largerfeld who was 21 years old at that time.
10. His illness was kept from him.
Saint Laurent passed away due to brain cancer on 1 June 2018. But he didn't know of his illness and impending death. In an interview with The Talks, Pierre Bergé confirmed this: "He never knew. The doctor told me that there was nothing more to do and we mutually decided that it would be better for him to not know. You know, I have the belief that Yves would not have been strong enough to accept that."