Sitting at the desk in his childhood room in Oran, Algeria, at the end of 1957, the young man moved his practiced hand across the drawing paper. From the spare lines of his pencil came sweeps, swishes, and another dress design. And then, another. Yves Saint Laurent was 21 years old, and he was under pressure.
“Only in the calm of my true home can I work,” he told L’Écho d’Oran at the time.
Born in 1936 in the city on Algeria’s northwest coast, he had left for Paris at 18 to study fashion at the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. Before he completed the first year, however, a brief interview with Christian Dior led the leading fashion designer to hire him as an assistant. When Dior suffered a fatal heart attack three years later, the mantle of the world’s most famous fashion house passed to the precocious protégé. Faced with having to sketch out his first collection for the House of Dior, Saint Laurent withdrew to his family home.
A sunny port city of long boulevards and whitewashed buildings, Oran takes its name from the Arabic root of “lion” and more recently has carried the nickname Al Bahia, “The Radiant.” The family home was in the Plateau Saint Michel neighborhood, near the art deco train station. His father worked in insurance and also ran a string of cinemas, so he was not often home. The Saint-Laurent household was dominated by three generations of women—a grandmother, his mother and his two younger sisters.
After a few weeks of sketching, Saint Laurent returned to Paris carrying more than 600 designs. These were turned into the 178-piece Trapeze collection, which moved away from Dior’s famous cinch-waisted “New Look” that had reigned since its 1947 debut. Saint Laurent jettisoned its geometric shapes and tight constructions for light, fluid designs—“more casual, more flexible, more natural,” he said at the time. Presented on January 30, 1958, it was a resounding success. Newspapers heralded the triumph on front pages.
He never returned to Oran. The Algerian War of Independence, which had begun in 1954, ended in 1962, and that year his parents and sisters joined the flight of French residents to France, carrying what they could in their hands. But Oran never left him.
Saint Laurent’s ancestors had settled in Oran having fled Alsace, in northeastern France, in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. Founded in the early 10th century CE on a wide crescent of harbor, Oran was ruled by Berber and Muslim dynasties until 1509, and then by Spanish and Ottoman sovereigns until the French took control and colonized it in 1831. In 1950, when Saint Laurent was a teenager, about 1 million European settlers (known as Pieds-Noirs) were living among some 9 million Algerians. In Oran, however, Europeans accounted for 60 percent of the population.
Saint Laurent’s family socialized with others in the socially and economically dominant French community. “It was a very small, insular world,” says Madison Cox, a leading American garden designer and current president of the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation based in Paris and the Majorelle Garden Foundation in Marrakesh. “But of course the minute he walked in the streets, the minute he was confronted with the outside world, it was a completely exotic place for a French youngster.” One heard a variety of languages, and communities of Muslim Algerians of Arab and Berber descent, French, Spanish and Italians lived side-by-side, even if they didn’t always mix. The designer later described Oran as “a cosmopolis of trading people from all over, and mostly from elsewhere, a town glittering in a patchwork of all colors under the sedate North African sun.”
In summer his family would move to its beachside villa for “days when I was happiest of all,” he said late in life. There, a wild, shady garden, boats from the yacht club and swimming proved a haven for the shy, sensitive, bespectacled young man for whom school meant bullies and beatings.
In response, says Cox, Saint Laurent created a private world at home with drawings, costumes, puppet theater and magazines from the epicenter of culture, Paris.
From age 14 he created his own couture house with what he called his “paper dolls.” He cut out models from magazines and then designed different sets of garments for them, explains Olivier Flaviano, director of Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, which conserves these. “He had 12 different models and about 650 items of fashion,” he says. Saint Laurent created whole fashion shows, complete with programs.
At Dior, Saint Laurent designed six collections before the French Army drafted him. Within weeks he had a breakdown, and Dior replaced him while he was still in a military hospital. Soon afterward Saint Laurent launched his own eponymous house with partner Pierre Bergé handling the business side. The first collection, presented in January 1962, opened with a navy-blue wool pea coat, heralding a new and distinctive style. Critics raved. Time gave it a cover story.
Over the next decades, Saint Laurent created some of the most iconic and influential designs in fashion history. Each collection, it seemed, opened a new chapter of style: trench coats, le smoking tuxedos and safari jackets, trousers, jumpsuits and pantsuits. Carrying over elements from men’s wardrobes to designs for women, he produced clothing that projected confidence and authority without diminishing femininity. Celebrated for their lightness, the garments were also sensual, says French fashion historian Florence Müller, who has also curated two major Yves Saint Laurent retrospectives. “By sensual I mean how the garment feels like a caress on your body.”
In 1966, desiring to dress more than just an elite handful of wealthy haute couture clients, Saint Laurent began opening what became the first ready-to-wear boutiques to bear a couturier’s name, revolutionizing the fashion industry.
That same year, he renewed his links to North Africa.
Saint Laurent and Bergé traveled to the southern Moroccan city of Marrakesh. They were enthralled. By the time they returned to Paris, they had bought a small house just inside the old city’s famously pinkish-red walls. “He was a teenager when he left Oran,” observes Müller, and thus Marrakesh’s light, colors and gardens were, in that sense, more familiar to him than the grays of Paris. “It was like going back to his childhood.”
For the next 40 years, Saint Laurent and Bergé divided time between France and Morocco, restoring two other homes as well as Marrakesh’s Fondation Jardin Majorelle, which they opened to the public.
By the time of that first visit, Saint Laurent was designing four collections a year—two couture, two ready-to-wear—on an unmovable timetable. “Unlike most other designers, he was able to find designs that expressed a new vision each season but were also real, wearable garments,” says Müller, “a combination that is the most difficult thing to achieve.”
“The creative part of sketching a collection is one that really required him to withdraw from the day-to-day,” says Cox, who began a life-long friendship with the designer in the late 1970s. “He really only could do that when he was away from Paris.” With few distractions in Marrakesh, he could work uninterrupted for two weeks and return to Paris with up to 1,000 drawings. From these the collection would be realized in six weeks in the couture house.
For Saint Laurent, to be modern meant to be culturally diverse, global. It also reflected his childhood.
Dazzled by the clothing worn locally, Saint Laurent found design ideas on the streets and in the suqs. Rich embroidery, colored threads and other North African influences abounded in his collections. He created new silhouettes for some of the world’s most chic women with capes inspired by the djellaba (robe) and the burnous (cloak) and he drew on local scarfs, tunics and caftans to synthesize avant-garde designs.
But it was Marrakesh’s saturated colors—sunset pinks and ochre reds, sunflower yellows, indigo blues—on zillij (mosaics), zouac (paintworks) and walls, in gardens and on traditional garments that made the biggest impact. Saint Laurent was, Bergé wrote after the designer’s death, “carried away by the hint of a saffron-colored lining underneath a green caftan, by headscarves with borders of jet-black fringes, but also by the jacaranda and blue melia trees, the red hibiscuses, the orange clivias, the pearly white water lilies.” As the designer himself once said, “I discovered Marrakech very late and it was an extraordinary shock. Especially for the color. This city brought me color.”
Saint Laurent’s palette brightened from the mid-‘60s. “Before, I only used dark shades,” he told his biographer Laurence Benaïm. “Then Morocco came with its colors ... colors of earth and sand. But also the colors of the street: the women in turquoise or mauve caftans ... and the sky.”
But such chromatic sensitivity was already present in him, says Flaviano, making Marrakesh “more of a rediscovery than a discovery itself.” As Saint Laurent’s muse and creative partner Loulou de la Falaise put it the 1970s, “He always had it in him because he was brought up in color.”
When Saint Laurent died in 2008 of a brain tumor at the age of 72, the headline of The New York Times obituary read, “Yves Saint Laurent, Who Changed the Color of Couture.” It was a double wordplay. Along with his garments in which color wasn’t there simply to vary or brighten but was intrinsic to a design, Saint Laurent was the first major designer to routinely hire models of color, beginning with the original collection he presented under his own name in 1962. His muses and models in the fitting room and on the runway were always from ranges of ethnicities, including the Somali-born supermodel Iman Abdelmajid, whom he called “my dream woman.”
For Saint Laurent, to be modern meant to be culturally diverse, global. It also reflected his childhood. “The idea of introducing models of color, of different ethnicities, down the runway in Paris is something I think he embraced because of his formative years in Oran,” says Cox, leaving one more piece in a design legacy that was always a step ahead.