Revered fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent retires

Tuesday, January 8, 2002

PARIS -- Yves Saint Laurent, who put women into elegant pantsuits and broke down other barriers between the sexes with cutting-edge designs that changed the way generations of women dressed, announced his retirement Monday and said he was closing the legendary fashion house he started 40 years ago.

Widely considered the most influential designer of the 20th century, Saint Laurent spoke briefly about his legacy and thanked the women who wore his designs at a news conference at his salon in Paris.

"I want to thank the women who wore my clothes, the celebrities and the unknown, who were so faithful to me and who gave me so much joy," Saint Laurent said, reading from a speech without looking up.

"For a long time now, I have believed that fashion was not only supposed to make women beautiful, but to reassure them, to give them confidence, to allow them to come to terms with themselves," he said.

Saint Laurent, 65, also talked about his battles with drugs, depression and loneliness, but gave no indication those problems were the reason for his retirement.

"I've known fear and terrible solitude," he said. "Tranquilizers and drugs, those phony friends. The prison of depression and hospitals. I've emerged from all this, dazzled but sober."

A show of Saint Laurent's spring-summer collection, scheduled for Jan. 23, has been canceled, his office said, although a retrospective of the designer's work will be held on Jan. 22 at the Pompidou Center in Paris.

"Saint Laurent is the supreme reference, the greatest, whom I admire and I revere. He knew how to make dreams real and embodied the fantasies of every period. His retirement makes me sad because he'll no longer ... astonish us with his collections," French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier told Liberation newspaper.

The Algerian-born Saint Laurent first emerged as a promising designer in 1953, when he won first prize in a contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat for his cocktail dress design.

Soon after, he came to the attention of Christian Dior, then regarded as the greatest creator of his day. Dior was so impressed that he hired Saint Laurent on the spot.

Saint Laurent was only 21 in 1957 when he was named head designer at House of Dior following Dior's sudden death. The next year, Saint Laurent became a star when he introduced the trapeze line, his first solo collection. The trapeze dress -- with its narrow shoulders and wide, swinging skirt -- was a hit, a breath of fresh air after years of constructed clothing, tight waists and girdles.

He opened his own haute couture fashion house in 1962 with business partner Pierre Berge. The pair later started a chain of Rive Gauche ready-to-wear boutiques.

Saint Laurent's early collections were known for their maverick quality: The first YSL tuxedo for women surfaced in the 1966 fall-winter collection and became a fashion landmark.

Possessing a keen sense of what women wanted, Saint Laurent introduced stylish, tailored pantsuits in the 1970s that remain a wardrobe staple of working women. His sixties "chic beatnik" look -- black leather jacket, knit turtleneck, high boots -- has never lost its appeal.

He also turned out costumes for ballet, theater and film -- Catherine Deneuve, Claudia Cardinale and Romy Schneider all wore wardrobes designed by Saint Laurent in their films. His admirers included Raisa Gorbachev, late wife of former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Saint Laurent drew on a wide variety of artistic and historical influences. His spectacular peasant-chic "Ballets Russes" collection dazzled Paris, as did his mini-dress printed in bright squares that evoked Piet Mondrian's geometric works.

In 1983, Saint Laurent became the first living designer to be featured in a retrospective exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

While Monday's announcement means Saint Laurent's house of haute couture will close, the Yves Saint Laurent name will not disappear.

In 1999, Saint Laurent sold the rights to his label, ceding control of his Rive Gauche collection, perfumes -- including his designer scent Opium -- cosmetics and accessories to Gucci Group NV in return for $70 million cash and royalties. Since then, Gucci's creative director, Tom Ford, has been in charge of the ready-to-wear collection, fragrances and cosmetics.

Some fashion industry insiders had cited tensions between Saint Laurent and Ford as a potential factor in the fashion guru's decision to retire.

Gucci issued a statement expressing the company's esteem for Saint Laurent.

"We have the greatest admiration for Mr. Saint Laurent and his contribution to the history of fashion, and respect his decision to retire and end his haute couture activity," said Gucci CEO Domenico de Sole.

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