Legendary Designer Yves Saint Laurent dies at 71

12:21 PM


PARIS (AP) — Yves Saint Laurent, one of the most influential and enduring designers of the 20th century, empowered women by reinventing pants as a sleek, elegant staple of the female wardrobe.

Saint Laurent, 71, died Sunday night at his Paris home after a yearlong battle with brain cancer, said Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent's close friend and business partner for four decades.

"Chanel gave women freedom," and Saint Laurent "gave them power," Berge said on France-Info radio. He called Saint Laurent a "true creator" who went beyond the aesthetic to make a social statement.

"In this sense, he was a libertarian, an anarchist and he threw bombs at the legs of society," he said. "That's how he transformed society and that's how he transformed women."

The Gucci Group, which acquired the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house in 1999, said the designer's death "leaves a great emptiness but also a sublime inheritance."

"This genius of creation shattered the codes to create French elegance which today makes Paris a grand capital of fashion," Gucci said.

Berge, speaking Monday on the France-2 TV station, stressed Saint Laurent's "profound love" for women. He used fashion to "serve women" and not "use them," said Berge, who collaborated with the designer for four decades and was his former romantic partner.

In his own words, Saint Laurent once said he felt "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."

Saint Laurent widely was considered the last of a generation that included Christian Dior and Coco Chanel and made Paris the fashion capital of the world, with the Rive Gauche, or Left Bank, as its elegant headquarters.

The designer raised the stature of fashion while making it more accessible, it is widely agreed.

President Nicolas Sarkozy praised Saint Laurent for "putting his mark on a half-century of creation, in luxury as well as ready-to-wear." First lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who graced Saint Laurent's runway during her modeling career, said she had a "heavy heart" on learning of his death.

"He was an exceptional artist and human being," she said. "He made not only beauty, but also women's strength sublime."

For Culture Minister Christine Albanel, the designer personally touched women's lives.

"This brilliant idea that a woman could be the most feminine possible while dressing like a man ... it seems to me decisive," she told Associated Press Television News. "Little by little, women get rid of their corset and then they live differently."

From the first YSL tuxedo and his trim pantsuits to see-through blouses, safari jackets and glamorous gowns, Saint Laurent created instant classics that remain stylish decades later.

"Mr. Saint Laurent revolutionized modern fashion with his understanding of youth, sophistication and relevance. His legacy will always be remembered," said Calvin Klein designer Francisco Costa.

Saint Laurent was born Aug. 1, 1936, in Oran, Algeria, where his father worked as a shipping executive. He first emerged as a promising designer at age 17, winning first prize in a contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat for a cocktail dress design.

A year later, in 1954, he enrolled at the Chambre Syndicale school of haute couture, but student life lasted only three months. He was introduced to Christian Dior, then regarded as the greatest creator of his day, and Dior was so impressed with Saint Laurent's talent that he hired him on the spot.

When Dior died suddenly in 1957, Saint Laurent was named head of the House of Dior at age 21.

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

Saint Laurent's simple navy blue pea coat over white pants, which the designer first showed in 1962, was one of his hallmarks. His "smoking," or tuxedo jacket, of 1966 remade the tux as a high fashion statement for both sexes. It remained the designer's trademark item and was updated yearly until he retired.

Also from the 60s came Beatnik chic — a black leather jacket and knit turtleneck with high boots — and sleek pantsuits that underlined Saint Laurent's statement on equality of the sexes. He showed that women could wear "men's clothes," which when tailored to the female form became an emblem of elegant femininity.

Some of his revolutionary style was met with resistance. There are famous stories of women wearing Saint Laurent pantsuits who were turned away from hotels and restaurants in London and New York.

Saint Laurent's rising star was eternalized in 1983, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted a show to his work, the first ever to a living designer. He was awarded the Legion d'Honneur in 1985.

But bouts of depression marked his career. Berge, who lived with the designer for years, was quoted as saying that Saint Laurent was born with a nervous breakdown.

When Saint Laurent announced his retirement in 2002 at age 65 and the closure of the Paris-based haute couture house, it was mourned in the fashion world as the end of an era. His ready-to-wear label, Rive Gauche, which was sold to Gucci in 1999 for $70 million cash and royalties, still has boutiques around the world.

Saint Laurent had long been rumored to be ill, and Berge said on RTL radio Monday that he had been afflicted with brain cancer for the past year.

"He no longer liked the world of today's fashion ... he said it didn't understand him," Berge said.

"He had a great, immense love affair with fashion. It's true that he left the profession, but in a couple you can split up because you must do so ... and still be very unhappy," he said. "That was his case."

After retirement, Saint Laurent spoke of his battles with depression, drugs and loneliness, though he gave no indication that those problems were directly tied to his decision to stop working.

"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 funeral ceremony was scheduled for Thursday at the Saint Roch Church in central Paris, Berge said, moving the date announced earlier forward by a day. Saint Laurent's ashes are to be placed in a vault in the Majorelle botanical garden in Marrakech, Morocco, which he and Berge purchased in the 1980s, their foundation said.

By ELAINE GANLEY

Associated Press writer Rachid Aouli contributed to this report.

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