Van Gogh jacket and Picasso dress: six museums come together for Saint Laurent exhibition

The designer’s creations are displayed alongside the masterpieces that inspired them, in an homage to fashion and art

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On January 29, 1962, Yves Saint Laurent presented his inaugural collection under his own name in the couture house he had just acquired in Paris’s Rue Spontini. He was 25 at the time. The runway show opened with a chic pink and green checked suit, and was followed by 103 more outfits.

Two hours later, the show was over and history had been made. Saint Laurent, the couturier who gave women the Le Smoking tuxedo suit — plus the trench coat, the safari jacket and black leather boots among many other 1960s innovations, which have become a staple of the modern wardrobe — was on the way to becoming one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century.

Sixty years later, six of Paris’s most august art museums have partnered to present an exhibition, Yves Saint Laurent aux Musees, which illustrates the role fine art played in Saint Laurent’s designs. The late couturier’s creations are displayed in the museums alongside the artworks that inspired them.

Works of art

His 1965 Mondrian dress is juxtaposed with the Mondrian painting it references at the Pompidou Centre. Jackets and dresses inspired by Picasso are displayed alongside the Spanish painter’s artworks at Musee Picasso Paris. And a huge, colourful 1937 Raoul Dufy painting at the Museum of Modern Art is the backdrop to electric-hued satin evening gowns that demonstrate Saint Laurent’s own extraordinary artistry with colour.

Saint Laurent was the first living designer, and still in his creative prime, to be the subject of a major retrospective in 1983 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York under the sharp-eyed curatorship of storied editor Diana Vreeland. He was to spend 40 years at the helm of his couture house, and this was only his 21st anniversary. There were subsequent exhibitions in Beijing and Paris in 1985 and 1986 respectively, and then a major retrospective at the Petit Palais in Paris in 2010, two years after his death.

Madison Cox, the president of the Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent, wanted to mark the 60th anniversary of the inauguration of the house with “something spectacular and different”, by highlighting the designer's boundless creativity via his relationship with art. What is unprecedented is that this is one exhibition scattered across Paris in different museums that, aside from those mentioned, include the Musee de Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay and the Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent at 5 Avenue Marceau, where the couture house moved to in 1974 and is today the home of the designer’s archive and museum.

All [the museum presidents] knew about Saint Laurent's passion for art, its importance to his creativity [and] his importance as a collector
Mouna Mekouar, co-curator, Saint Laurent retrospective

What has been achieved is a unique collaboration. Co-curator Mouna Mekouar, working alongside Cox and Stephan Janson, recalls the first conversations over Zoom with the presidents of the various art museums during the pandemic in the spring of 2020.

“It was really moving how enthusiastic and committed they were from the first meeting,” says Mekouar. “Museums were closed and we didn’t know what would happen to any of us, but there was a new kind of solidarity among them.”

Bringing fashion into these museums and showing them alongside major artworks in their permanent collections is unusual, but the museum presidents understood the genius of Saint Laurent.

“They all knew about his passion for art, its importance to his creativity. They also knew of his importance as a collector, and that he was someone who loved and helped museums [many pieces from Saint Laurent's private art collection were donated to them]. So this exhibition is meaningful to them."

In fine style

Saint Laurent was the first fashion designer to establish a real dialogue with contemporary artists and the arts of the past. In 1965, when Piet Mondrian was little-known in France, the couturier was inspired by the Dutch artist’s graphic colour-blocked abstract paintings, and created a group of jersey shifts that were full of dash and visual drama. They were greeted on the runway with a standing ovation and boosted Mondrian’s popularity in France.

As Saint Laurent later said of his relationship with art: “Mondrian, of course, who was the first [who] I dared approach in 1965, and whose rigour could not fail to charm me, but also Matisse, Braque, Picasso, Bonnard and Leger. How could I have resisted pop art, which was the expression of my youth?”

To question whether a couturier can be regarded as an artist, or an artist as a couturier is no longer relevant
Mouna Mekouar

On display at the Musee d’Art Moderne de Paris are a pair of ultra-feminine printed organza evening ensembles designed in 2001 as a salute to the Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard. At the Musee Picasso Paris, there is a jacket from 1979 hanging next to Picasso’s portrait of French model and surrealist artist Nusch Eluard, who is wearing a similar jacket designed by Elsa Schiaparelli. In that one jacket, Mekouar points out, Saint Laurent is paying tribute to Picasso, Eluard and Schiaparelli — such are the layers of meaning he invested in his designs.

Picasso was a profound influence on Saint Laurent, who transformed cubism into couture with his Picasso-inspired detailing on dresses.

At the Musee D’Orsay is a display of Le Smoking tuxedos and a series of Belle Epoque-inspired dresses designed in 1971 for the famous Proust Ball thrown by Baron Guy de Rothschild. Marcel Proust was another famous influence on the designer who regularly re-read the writer’s masterpiece La Recherche. However, another aspect of his work features in the opulent Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre: paying homage to the craftsmanship of the embroiderers and petite mains in his atelier.

When the Louvre curator had finished installing the lushly gilded and embroidered YSL jackets alongside the French grand decor antiques and artworks that had provided their design inspiration, she told Mekouar she felt the jackets had been there from the beginning, “that they were part of the room”.

The displays around the various museums reveal the depth and profound beauty of Saint Laurent’s work. At the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Avenue Marceau, the exhibition continues with access to Saint Laurent’s original design studio, design sketches, more of his archive and the spectacular Van Gogh Sunflowers jacket that took 600 hours to be embroidered by Francois Lesage’s team using 350,000 sequins. Saint Laurent asked Lesage to recreate the brushstrokes and the colour palette making the jacket itself resemble a painting.

Furthering the arts

The couturier, who had art in his heart, retired at the age of 65 in January 2002 with a spectacular 90-minute fashion show in the Pompidou Centre. He passed away in 2008, but such is his legacy that the exhibition has drawn visitors back to the museums, encouraging them to explore the different institutions.

There is no beginning or end to the journey through this constellation of exhibitions; a visitor can take in as many museums as they wish, “perhaps exploring ones they don’t know,” says Mekouar. It is also encouraging a young generation, eager to learn about the couturier’s fashion artistry, to explore the permanent collections of the museums at large.

The curator, who comes from the contemporary art world rather than fashion, says “to question whether a couturier can be regarded as an artist, or an artist as a couturier is no longer relevant”. The two are inextricably intertwined, as Saint Laurent amply proved.

The exhibition is on display at Musee Picasso Paris until April 15; at Yves Saint Laurent aux Musees at the Musee d’Orsay and Musee d’Art Moderne de Paris until May 15; at Musee du Louvre and Centre Pompidou until May 16; and at Musee Yves Saint Laurent Paris until September 18

Updated: March 23, 2022, 1:06 PM