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Luxury Fashion Influencers: Yves Saint Laurent

Written by Caro Clark


Posted on June 18 2024

Luxury Fashion Influencers: Yves Saint Laurent

We Could All Learn a Lesson or Several from the French Fashion Icon


Having worked closely under and then taking over for Christian Dior, it’s no surprise that Yves Saint Laurent would go on to leave his own distinct mark on luxury fashion design. Saint Laurent began garnering attention in the high fashion world in 1953 when one of his designs won first place in a contest for aspiring fashion designers. His sketches impressed Michel De Brunhoff, editor-in-chief of the French edition of Vogue magazine, who encouraged him to enroll at the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. During his last year at design school, he submitted new fashion sketches to the aspiring designers contest and won first place, beating out a young Karl Lagerfeld.


Following his graduation and second first place win, Brunhoff decided to introduce Saint Laurent to Christian Dior who immediately offered him a job. After a few years of designing accessories, he started to submit sketches for Dior’s couture collection, and more of his designs were accepted with each passing season. By 1957, Dior informed Saint Laurent’s mother that her son had been chosen as his successor for head designer, and later that year he died from a heart attack at a spa in Italy. At the early age of 21, Yves Saint Laurent became head designer of the House of Dior.


Less than a year after taking the reins, Saint Laurent’s new spin on Dior’s 1955 A-line dress called the Trapeze line demonstrated that head designer was a position he was more than equipped to handle. He debuted his new silhouette in the Spring collection of 58’, and it became a fast hit for fashion icons and socialites. The Trapeze silhouette was airy with a gently tailored waist to give a women’s form the perfect balance of structure and laxity. It maintained femininity without limiting a woman while wearing in during daytime activities. The key feature of the silhouette proved to be its length. When it hit just below the knee, the dress was exceedingly popular; but when he lengthened it to several inches below the knee for the following season, it had lost its appeal.


Unsurprisingly, Saint Laurent would experience several releases that were deemed to be missteps among the fashion elite. His reintroduction of the hobble skirt in 1959—a calf-length skirt that’s tight at the bottom and balloons around the thigh area—was widely ridiculed and was a departure from Dior’s previously chic yet practical designs. He took the criticisms in stride, bringing in outside advisors to help with balance the public’s desire with his innovative vision. Saint Laurent adapted to negative reactions by hiring Parisian designer Marc Bohan to assist in the creative process.


After being conscripted to serve in the French-Algerian war in 1960, he suffered a breakdown and was admitted to the military hospital only to be told that he was being replaced as head designer at Dior. Not only had he been fired, but he was being replaced by the man he brought on to assit him—Marc Bohan. While under French military medical care, Saint Laurent underwent electroshock treatments and was given high doses of psychoactive medications. Upon his release, he sued his former employer for breach of contract, and with the backing of the wealthy French industrialist Pierre Bergé, he began to lay the foundation for his own luxury fashion brand—Yves Saint Laurent.


If there’s a moral lesson one can take from Saint Laurent’s early career, it’s that while one may be given and have earned fortuitous opportunities, nobody remains the hot new thing forever. You might earn your step up; you might be given it. Regardless of how you got ahead, you’ll have to fight to stay there, and you may have to claw yourself back up on that podium after unrightfully being pushed off. But the determination and perseverance often will pay off, or at least it did for Yves Saint Laurent who is either fabulously lucky, fantastically talented, particularly hardworking; or, as is usually the case, a combination of all three.