Yves Saint Laurent himself said it best: “Chanel freed women, and I empowered them.” Founded in 1961, the legendary house that bears his name has given us a repertoire of fabled pieces (the Mondrian shift, Le Smokingtuxedo, the safari jacket, the see-through dress) that—likeCoco Chanel’s boxy jersey suits and wide-leg trousers a generation earlier—offered a modern vocabulary of dressing that was confident, worldly, and sexually liberated. “I created the contemporary woman’s wardrobe,” proclaimed Saint Laurent—who upended the fashion world in the 1960s and seventies with his groundbreaking mix of the masculine and feminine, the high and low, and the classic and avant-garde. It was he who put women in trouser suits, turned military uniforms and ethnic costume into everyday staples, and brought designer ready-to-wear to the masses.
The Yves Saint Laurent brand conjures images of gender-bending sophistication and renegade French chic. Its aura has always been linked to the charismatic persona of its founder, whose searching intellect, knack for tuning in to the social mood of his times, and club-going, drug-taking notoriety fueled a fashion revolution.
In the 1970s, Saint Laurent and Bergé built a massive empire by licensing the name—with its YSL monogram designed by the artist Cassandre—for everything from perfumes to vinyl shower curtains. The house caused another furor in 1977 with a fragrance called Opium. Its ad, photographed by Helmut Newton, featured a splay-leggedJerry Hall draped on gold lamé cushions, as if in a trance, beneath the pitch: “Opium, for those who are addicted to Yves Saint Laurent.” The ensuing media fracas—and protests by antidrug activists, as well as Chinese-American groups—only cemented the company’s image of decadence deluxe.