PARIS — Sixty years after showing his first collection under his own name, Yves Saint Laurent, the designer synonymous with French fashion and who died in 2008, is once again taking Paris by storm. Or rather, his creations are.
From Saturday to May 15, 50 pieces from the couturier’s vast oeuvre are on display in the permanent collections of five of France’s most prestigious museums: the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Center Pompidou, the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris and the Musée Picasso Paris. And the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, in the designer’s former headquarters on Avenue Marceau, will display sketches, Polaroids and rare toiles illustrating the processes and craftsmanship required to create couture.
Organizers say the simultaneous showing of “Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées”, 18 pandemic months in the making, will be the first time a couturier has been honored in so many classical settings at once. But it will be another of Mr. Saint Laurent, including the first couturier to embrace ready-to-wear, the first to take fashion inspiration from street style and one of the first designers to put color models on the catwalk. And it could end the eternal debate about whether high fashion belongs among high art.
Mouna Mekouar, the show’s co-curator and contemporary art specialist (this will be her first fashion show), said that while fashion and art have traditionally existed in parallel worlds, that separation no longer applies.
“I think in 2022 we live in a time where we no longer have to ask the question whether fashion is art, whether art is art,” she said during an interview at Café Beaubourg, in the shadow of the Center Pompidou.
“Today we live in a multi- and transdisciplinary universe made up of connecting links, so the old labels don’t make sense anymore,” she added. “I don’t think you can understand a fashion designer, whoever that is, without taking into account the contemporary creation around them. Likewise, I think we cannot understand a contemporary artist without also looking at what is happening in fashion.”
None of the institutions, she said, hesitated for a moment when she proposed the joint show.
The genius of Saint Laurent, Ms. Mekouar said, was that he blurred the lines between fashion and art from the start.
“He looked at different civilizations and art forms and reacted to the art of his time,” she said. “He announced the arrival of the 21st century. His view was pluralistic: there is no hierarchy, just multiple areas of interest.
“He has completely assimilated an artist’s work to reinvent it,” she continued. “Even if the referral is direct, there’s always a twist. And his work still has meaning around the world today, because he did it before anyone else.”
Saint Laurent’s references were so versatile that the exhibit could have gone “in a thousand different directions,” she said. To keep it focused, Ms. Mekouar; Stephan Janson, her co-curator; and Madison Cox, president of the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, worked closely with museum directors and curators to match selections with each institution’s holdings.
At the Center Pompidou, for example, 500 Polaroids of YSL friends, muses and models including Kate Moss, Carla Bruni, Stella Tennant and Naomi Campbell give a table display a Warholian twist. A dress from the Picasso collection from fall-winter 1979, with undercurrents reflecting the work of French artist Sonia Delaunay, is displayed in the Delaunay room. A green coat from the Scandale collection of 1971 stands next to “Made in Japan”, the pop work of Martial Raysse, a contemporary of the couturier.
Then there are the celebrated Mondrian Dresses of Autumn-Winter 1965, which showcased the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian for a French audience – a decade before Pompidou acquired ‘Composition in Red, Blue, and White II’. In the display, for the first time, a YSL Mondrian dress and the painting are side by side.
“This project was particularly resonating for the Pompidou,” says Xavier Rey, the museum’s director, “because Yves Saint Laurent was not only the first to connect couture with the art he loved and collected, but also because the museum was where he chose to retire from fashion, in 2002” — a reference to the couturier’s last fashion show, a 45-minute retrospective, the film of that event being screened in the museum.
At the Musée d’Art Moderne, the installations have been rearranged and the lighting dimmed to house clothing that highlights another facet of 20th-century art, with a denim jacket dress from the spring-summer 1970 Rive Gauche-prêt-à-porter The designer’s line of striped painted panels by Daniel Buren, a former street artist. And at the Musée d’Orsay, which specializes in 19th-century works, the touch point isn’t art, it’s literature. Marcel Proust, whose works were a lifelong inspiration for Saint Laurent, is indirectly referenced by one of the designer’s trademarks – Le Smoking, or women’s tuxedo dressing – a nod to the once-radical concept of masculine-feminine (currently known as gender fluidity). ).
In front of the large clock by d’Orsay at the entrance to the Impressionist collections are placed five tuxedos, including the very first Saint Laurent from 1966, as well as two Belle Époque-inspired gowns. Both were designed for the 1971 Proust Ball – one, worn by Jane Birkin, was made of ivory crepe with mutton sleeves and guipure lace, while the other, modeled by the ball’s hostess, Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, was made of ivory satin with black trim.
All are shown in view of the 1863 painting ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’ by Édouard Manet, or ‘The Luncheon on the Grass’, another recurring obsession of Mr Saint Laurent. Further down in the Impressionist collections, a niche devoted to graphic art displays Saint Laurent’s sketches of clothing designs and photographs of YSL’s loyal customers, such as Hélène Rochas, wife of the designer Marcel Rochas, in a black velvet dress with a cleavage of Cattleya orchids in white satin .
In the Louvre’s gilded Galerie d’Apollon, home to the French Crown Jewels, four ornately embroidered coats celebrate the glory of France and its savoir-faire.
A jacket called Homage à Ma Maison, a tribute by the designer to his little heads and made of organza heavily inlaid with rock crystal and embroidered with gold thread, was exhibited near King Louis XIV’s collection of objects in carved rock crystal. A heart pendant made of rhinestones and molded glass, part of the semiology Saint Laurent used to designate a favorite model in a runway show, joined a display of replica jewelry.
Mr. Cox, the chairman of the foundation and the widower of Mr. Bergé, commented that he believed Saint Laurent would be very happy with the company his work is producing. “While Mr. Saint Laurent may not have been the most humble person in the world,” he said, “I think he really wanted to be considered an artist. He was an artist manque.”
Geographically and figuratively, the event covers a lot of ground. Still, Ms Mekouar and Mr Cox said it represents only some of the themes yet to be extracted from the approximately 7,000 YSL garments, 50,000 accessories and thousands of sketches for collections, sets and costumes kept in archives across France. And neither are treasures like the more than 250 pieces and prototypes donated to the foundation in 2019 by YSL muse Betty Catroux.
“I hope that these kinds of exhibitions can be applied to other locations as well,” said Mr. Cox, “so that we can let go of the idea of the fashion exhibition as we know it.”
Mr Rey of the Center Pompidou said: “It is our duty to present art in all its forms. Through today’s designers, we see that fashion has a legitimate place more than ever before.”