Fashion that women wanted

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The doyen of French fashion designers, Yves Saint Laurent, announced his retirement yesterday, ending the career of a man who defined the way 20th century women dressed.

A pivotal figure in fashion for more than 40 years, the designer said he was closing the haute couture fashion house, although YSL as a brand will continue.

Even before the official announcement, the fashion world has reacted with shock and disbelief to the end of a fashion institution. As the inventor of the pant suit as a female uniform, Mr. Saint Laurent is credited with anticipating and acting upon the social changes of the last century - adapting fashion as the economic status of women changed.

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Looking solemn and wearing a black tie and suit, Saint Laurent sat at a table yesterday at his elegant Paris salon to read a long, prepared statement and did not answer any questions.

"I summoned you here today to announce important news that concerns my personal life and my profession.... I have chosen today to say goodbye to this profession that I love so much," he said.

For many, Saint Laurent is seen as the founding father of contemporary fashion. His biggest influence was taking men's clothing and redesigning them for women.

His genius was knowing what women wanted, introducing stylish, tailored pantsuits in the 1970s that remain a wardrobe staple of working women. The designer said that throughout his career, his goal was "not just to make women more beautiful but to reassure them and give them confidence. To give them the same assurance with their clothes that men have with theirs."

His women's tuxedo, safari jacket, trapeze dresses, and see-through blouses all became instant classics.

Fashion insiders say Saint Laurent's ill health and poor relations with his fashion house's owner - the French tycoon Francois Pinault - are the reasons for his departure. In 1999, Saint Laurent gave up rights to the YSL brand when he sold his company to Mr. Pinault's Gucci fashion empire.

When Pinault bought the house of Yves Saint Laurent from Sanofi Beaute for $1 billion, he sold the commercial arm of the company to Gucci but kept the unprofitable couture house.

It is only the couture unit that will close. Gucci's creative director, the Texan Tom Ford, will continue to control the image of the YSL company as well as designing the lucrative ready-to-wear collection and accessories.

Insiders say Saint Laurent took an immediate dislike to Ford and his team of commercially minded executives. Saint Laurent's business partner Pierre Berge alluded to this yesterday, saying the designer was no longer comfortable with the direction the fashion world had taken.

The Algerian-born designer shot to fame at age 21 in 1957 when he was named head designer at House of Dior following the death of Christian Dior, the youngest person ever to be made couturier. In 1962, he founded his own house and soon became known for his maverick quality.

In 1983, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York devoted a show to his work, the first to a living designer and Saint Laurent became a fashion icon. In 1985, French President Francois Mitterrand personally bestowed him a Legion d'Honneur. His last show will be the spring/summer haute couture collection which is due to be shown in Paris on January 23.

Some in the industry say they are saddened by the news of the closure of another haute couture house. Many see Yves Saint Laurent's departure as the marking the end of an era of haute couture - literally "high sewing" - which began in the 1950s. There are only a few Paris fashion houses with their own "chef de maison" left. In 1987 there were 24, compared to just 12 today. Only designers who show their collections during the Paris fashion weeks that are held twice a year, are allowed to call themselves haute couture designers.

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