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Yves Saint Laurent


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Yves Saint Laurent (1936 – 2008) French

"Le Smoking" tuxedo suit, 1966.

Yves Saint Laurent arrived in Paris from Algeria at 17 years of age.  In his second time competing he won 1st prize in a 1953 design competition for the International Wool Secretariat. The award led to being hired to assist couturier Christian Dior. In his three years as a Dior assistant he submitted approximately 400 sketches for each collection and as many as 50 of his were produced in a resulting Dior collections of 180 pieces.

Silk and pearl suit, Spring/Summer 1963.

In 1958, following the death of Dior, Saint Laurent was chosen as his successor; a decision made by Dior himself earlier that year. Saint Laurent was 21 years old at the time and his first collection, Trapeze, was a huge success. However, his second collection three months later was not. While prior Dior collections embraced a feminine and mature woman, Saint Laurent wanted to design for modern woman who were members of the youth culture. In addition, his drastic changes in design themes and moods were not appreciated by the old school couture customers or the fashion press.

During his short stint in the French army in 1960, Saint Laurent suffered a complete nervous breakdown and was medically discharged. During his recovery and absence from Dior, the company took advantage of the situation and installed Marc Bohan as acting chief designer. At that time, Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé chose to start their own company. This split divided the Dior staff and half chose to follow him to his new venture. A breach of contract lawsuit was filed and Saint Laurent won.

Wool jersey Mondrian day dress, 1965.

Saint Laurent opened his own couture house in 1962 with a successful first collection. His subsequent collections would shock the world, such as his 1966 Pop Art collection and the 1965 Mondrian-influenced collection consisting of checkerboard dresses in primary blocks of color.  “Le Smoking,” the female tuxedo, safari leisure suits, bold jewel tone colors, the use of gold, bold pairing of colors, and ethnic inspired collections with Eastern influences, and the use of non-white models in his runway shows are all fashions and design elements associated with Saint Laurent.

Silk and feathers dress, 1974-75.

Saint Laurent launched his ready-to-wear boutique line, Rive Gauche, in 1968 for his younger female customers believing that ready-to-wear was the greatest force in the fashion world. He supplemented the line with designs for handbags, belts, jewelry, knitwear, shoes, and even menswear.

Ethnic evening ensemble, Fall/winter 1976.

He is well known for his Russian Collection of Winter 1976-77 that incorporated elaborate embroidery, metallic piping, braided trim, full sleeves and embellished bolero jackets. It was inspired in part by Babushka peasant costumes and the Ballets Russe, which was also an influence for the designer Poiret. His other collections would pull design references from China, Peru, Central Africa (the Safari Collection in 1967), bullfighting (1979), the 1940s (1971) and even the hippie culture of the time.

Saint Laurent’s later years would be complicated by a heavy alcohol and drug addiction that included many attempts at rehabilitation. After retiring from the business in 2002, he succumbed to brain cancer in 2008.

Claudia Cardinale in The Pink Panther, 1963.

Film Connection: He designed costumes for the female leads in The Pink Panther (1963), wardrobe for Leslie Caron in A Very Special Favor (1965), and that of Catherine Deneuve in several of her films such as Belle de Jour (1967), Liza (1972), Mississippi Mermaid (1969), and The Hunger (1983).

Home Sewing Connection: For decades, Yves Saint Laurent lent his name and designs to Vogue Patterns.

Evening ensembles, Fall/Winter 1976-77.

His style, innovations, and lasting influence on fashion:

  • The designers Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel were great influences on him.
  • His great friends and style muses were actress Catherine Deneuve, model Iman, and Loulou de la Falaise.

Silk overblouse, 1960-62.

  • There was a 1983/1984 Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective exhibition of his career. This was the first one held for a living designer.
  • Saint Laurent was also honored with a posthumous retrospective in 2010 held at the Petit Palais, City of Paris Fine Art Museum in Paris. This exhibition featured 307 pieces from his entire body of work between 1958 and 2002.

"Pour Homme" cologne ad, 1971.

  • In 1971, he posed nude to advertise his cologne, Pour Homme. Recently, designer Marc Jacobs appropriated the same concept for his fragrance Bang.

Sources: The Great Fashion Designers (2009) Roger Tredre and Brenda Polan; The World’s Most Influential Fashion Designers (2010) Noel Palomo-Lovinski; Yves Saint-Laurent: Forty Years of Creation (1998) Beatrice Dupire, et al.

Lisa Williams   —  

Comments 6

Welmoed Sisson

Great article! I was fortunate to get to see “L’Amour Fou” when it was playing in New York, and saw many of the above dresses flit across the screen.

Last year I made my own version of the Mondrian dress for a 60’s themed party by drafting it myself when I couldn’t find any suitable pattern for it. Going through the whole process gave me great admiration for YSL’s vision, but also for his dressmakers, who had to figure out how to make those rectangles go over the curves of a human body.

Here’s my version:


Wow, super cute version of that iconic dress! Well done.


There was also a retrospective of his work in 2008, planned before his death, at the Musee de Beaux-Arts in Montreal:

It was a fabulous exhibit!


Actually, this is the direct link:


Well this is an old post but I had to comment that I saw the clothing exhibit that came to Denver, the only US city, think it was July 2012, and wow, the design was wonderful but what made me cry was all the unsung and usually not mentioned women who actually made the clothes, the workmanship (workwomanship!) was so impecable it really did bring me to tears.

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