Fashion: A Glimpse into the Style Genius of Yves Saint Laurent

by Catherine Trifiletti

YSL exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is an experience for the senses. 

Photo by Virginia Coyne

Few designers have understood the female shape like Yves Saint Laurent. The Algerian-born French prodigy started sketching clothes as a teenager and went on to become one of the most prolific couturiers of the 20th century. His creative journey was fastidiously documented by his longtime partner in business and life Pierre Bergé, who, along with Saint Laurent, founded the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent to share some 40 years worth of haute couture pieces, accessories, mood boards, photos and drawings that define the designer’s creative legacy. The organization was founded in 2004, four years before Saint Laurent’s death to conserve his work and promote his invaluable impact on the world of fashion.

Fabric swatches and drawings give insight into YSL’s design process. (Photo Courtesy © Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, Paris)

French historian Florence Müller and the Seattle Art Museum’s Chiyo Ishikawa curated a magnificent selection of the foundation’s collection to create “Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style.” The exhibition is currently on its second stop, and only East coast venue –  the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

”I am no longer concerned with sensation and innovation, but with the perfection of my style.” (Yves Saint Laurent, 1982) Opening the exhibit, these sage words from the artist offer insight about his refusal to conform to fleeting trends or persisting gender norms. Sketches from Saint Laurent’s teenage years show his innate understanding of the female figure and his strong interest in fashion, which led him to enter and win first prize in the International Wool Secretariat design competition. His winning rendition of a cocktail dress caught the attention of designer Christian Dior, who ended up hiring Saint Laurent as his assistant, or in Dior’s words “my right arm.” When Dior died suddenly in 1957, Saint Laurent was promoted to head designer despite being only 21. At the helm of Dior’s mega fashion house, Saint Laurent was catapulted into the spotlight with the creation of his “Trapeze” collection, which many critics described as revolutionary. (A dress from the collection is pictured below).

“Elephant Blanc” short evening dress from Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior’s “Trapeze” collection. (Photo by Alexandre Guirkinger)

The black-patent crocodile and mink jacket (“Chicago”)from Saint Laurent’s last collection for Dior in 1960 proved too avant-garde for the conservative fashion house, featuring a mostly black roster of looks inspired by the Left Bank Beat culture.

The exhibition covers Saint Laurent’s iconic style evolution from the genesis of his eponymous brand in 1962 onwards through a variety of notable collections, including his ready-to-wear Rive Gauche line. Visitors can explicitly see how Saint Laurent’s aesthetic evolved in tandem with varying collections of art, culture and history. Over 100 ensembles from various collections bring his creative and innovative methods to life. For example, Saint Laurent toyed with the idea of paradox and in no piece is that more apparent than his sheer pantsuit creation, which the exhibit description explains as Saint Laurent’s proclivity to push “the symbols of bourgeois decorum toward vulgar transgression.” In the same spirit of contradiction, he pushed gender boundaries with a collection inspired by pant suits and tuxedos, tailored to flatter the female figure.

Three ensembles from the exhibit’s “Contradictory Impulses” collection. (Photo by Virginia Coyne)

“Hommage to Piet Mondrian” A cocktail dress paying homage to artist Piet Mondrian highlights YSL’s connection to the art world. (Photo by Alexandre Guirkinger)

 The grand finale of the exhibit culminates with a color explosion of YSL evening attire accompanied by the color swatches and notes that dictated Saint Laurent’s design process. The displays reflect the designer’s ability to balance the avant-garde and the classic to achieve timelessness.

Photo by David Stover © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Note: Don’t miss the portrait of Yves Saint Laurent by Andy Warhol at the end of the exhibit.
“Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style” is on view through August 27. Tickets must be reserved in advance online HERE or by phone (804) 340-1405. $22 for adults; $10 for college students and children ages 7-17. VMFA members get in free.  
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
The 80 year old VFMA has a comprehensive collection of art spanning more than 5,000 years.  With over 35,000 pieces, the museum has one of the nation’s most valuable collections of art. General admission is free. Find out more at

Related Articles