The Eastern Imagination of Yves Saint Laurent

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Fashion design icon Yves Saint Laurent was long enamored with the Far East. Before he traveled there, Asian art and literature offered cultural passports to these faraway worlds. Saint Laurent immersed himself in both as a means for inspiration, which he later realized in his inventive couture. In the first thematic show at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, the exhibition Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient explores how many traditions of India, China, and Japan were infused into the designer’s vision for high fashion. Fifty of his pieces are shown alongside Asian artworks from the Musée Guimet and private collections to reveal how Eastern history and presence are in-written in the design and detail of Saint Laurent’s stylings.

Asian history, traditions, and folklore provided catalysts for Saint Laurent, who reinterpreted them into modern fashion moments. Some highlights of that influence include his theatrical Autumn/Winter 1977 collection, dedicated to Imperial China and—in the same year—the launch of his distinctive, vastly popular Opium fragrance. Saint Laurent also devised couture versions of lavish, regal cloaks, and bejeweled turbans worn by Indian dynasties. He also appropriated ornate Japanese courtesan kimonos and bold Kabuki costumes into his fashion creations. “Asia has long exerted a fascination on European artists,” explains Aurélie Samuel, Director of Collections at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris and Curator of the exhibition. “In his collections, Yves Saint Laurent delivers a personal vision of it, built on a thorough knowledge of its story, its culture and its art.”

Captivated by design from a young age, the designer left his family home in Algeria at the age of 17 to pursue a career in Paris. His talent was readily identified during studies at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. His major break, however, came during an interview with the famed Christian Dior. The veteran couturier quickly recognized the young designer’s potential and immediately hired Saint Laurent as his assistant. For the next three years, they worked closely as mentor and protégé until Dior’s sudden death in 1958. Saint Laurent was then named as successor and head designer for the House of Dior. At the age of 21, Saint Laurent prepared to lead a -million-per-year fashion empire. In his inaugural Spring 1958 collection for Dior, Saint Laurent’s lauded trapeze dresses and softer approach to the New Look secured the future of the fashion house and solidified Saint Laurent’s place among the most noted designers of the later 20th century.

During his nearly 50-year career that followed, Saint Laurent left a notable impression on the fashion world and held a reigning presence in the industry until his retirement in 2002. A pioneer of bold trends, Saint Laurent is best known for the advent of his signature “le smoking” tuxedos for women. He borrowed other looks from the Boy’s Club, from pants to pea coats, with the intent of empowering their female wearers. Uninhibited by controversy, Saint Laurent refused to acknowledge barriers or convention other than as a platform to begin his visions. He often looked to fashion history and other cultures for diverse inspirations and broader creative effect. The showcase, Dreams of the Orient discovers the East’s great impact on his couture shapes, patterns and color palettes. Drawing from a range of Asian references, Saint Laurent brought international reach to his fashion imagination and ultimately, his legacy.

Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient is showing at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris until January 27, 2019.

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