The Fashionable Algerian: The Man Who Knew What Women Wanted.

Designs in fashion come and go. Like the passing of a season, when the colors of nature change, so do the colors of fashion in the changing of trends. The industry and the nature of fashion itself are so volatile that the change can be either a slight tremor which overwhelms the present or a violent tsunami that erodes the landscape of fashion.

Through it all, there are very few constants. Fashion giant Yves Saint Laurent is such a constant. No matter how far the industry expands, such is the scope of his work that it will never escape his shadow or legacy.

The son of an insurance company president, Yves Henri Donat Dave Mathieu-Saint-Laurent left home at the age of 17 and found his calling in the world of fashion. He arrived in Paris with a portfolio of design sketches which was quickly swept up by Vogue editor Michel de Brunoff. The editor published the sketches and recommended the young Algerian to Christian Dior who ultimately hired him as an assistant.

His tenure at Dior was to weave his future in fashion, almost immediately after the death of Dior in 1957; a young Yves was put in charge of the faltering fashion house. With his flair for the excess and bravado, Yves managed to please and outrage House Dior during his short tenure there. Ages before John Galliano and Alexander McQueen he was considered fashion’s enfant terrible and years before designers like Calvin Klein and Tom Ford pushed the envelope between fashion and obscenity, Yves was shaking the sensibilities of the fashion world.

In 1960, things took a drastic turn and Yves was drafted into the French Army. Though his time there was short, it was excruciating painful for the shy Algerian, and his comrades in the army looked for every excuse to torture and tease him.

Two months later, having suffered a mental break down, Yves returned to fashion and it would be this stretch between the 60s and the 70s that he would truly leave his mark. Fashion historian Valerie Steele commented, “Most people would be lucky enough to leave a single contribution.” Yves’ contributions would literally shape the history of modern fashion. He went on to popularize a sensibility that was bohemian-chic, ultimately giving way for the hippie aesthetic that would come later on.

He drew inspiration from cultures around the world, welcoming such vastly different influences such as the traditional prints of Africa to Russian folkloric costumes. It wasn’t just culture and influence that he welcomed, Yves broke boundaries in all aspects of fashion. The designer was the first to use colored models on his runway, not as a gimmick but symbolizing them as unattainable beauty, valid and as enticing as any other. This move was bold and audacious, considering the times.

Yves was part of a quartet of designers, along with Christian Dior, "Coco" Chanel and Paul Poiret, who revolutionized, revitalized and reshaped the word of fashion. Without Yves ready to wear would not be what it is today.

Perhaps the single most powerful expression as a result of that is the woman’s suit. Of course the most Iconic of these is the Le Smoking tuxedo suit. Created in 1966, the suit established a minimalist, almost androgynous, style for women which put them on the same level of power as men.

His epitaph will not be written in stone or in words. Though the tributes are pouring in from all walks of life, from politicians to fashion gurus and from the world of music and film, none of these will do his work any justice. Instead his epitaph will be the dresses that fill the closets around the world and the stride put into the step of every woman through his designs. Yves Saint Laurent’s fashion gave freedom to women and it was Yves Saint Laurent himself who gave them the power to express that freedom.

The designer retired from the industry in 2002 and expressed his alienation at the current trends and industry. At the same time he fought a personal battle with depression and prescription drugs, which he came out of stating, "I've known fear and terrible solitude. Tranquilisers and drugs, those phony friends. The prison of depression and hospitals. I've emerged from all this, dazzled but sober.''

Yves Saint Laurent, one the top designers of the 20th century, died on June 2, 2008 in Paris.

(This Obit was originally published in the June 8th, 2008 edition of DAWN, Images.)

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