Courtesy of Denver Art Museum
Editor’s note: This marks the first in a regular series this summer. “Things to Do in Denver” will highlight visual and performing arts events in the Denver Metro area.
A large, pink satin bow is the signature image for an unusual exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. Tied at the back of a simple black dress, the bow reveals one of Yves Saint Laurent’s secrets. Take an ordinary piece of apparel, look at it twice, rethink and reshape it, and expand the borders of fashion.
The massive retrospective of Saint Laurent’s work illuminates his illustrious 40-year career and touches on his colorful and relatively long life (1936-2008). It also expands what art museums are all about – holding up a mirror to the culture we live in.
The Denver Art Museum, in collaboration with the foundation Saint Laurent and his life-long partner Pierre Bergé established, has mounted an astonishing display. The Denver retrospective is not the first, but it is rare. In 1983, Saint Laurent became the first living fashion designer to have a solo show in a prestigious museum – the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Chronologically organized, the new Denver show begins with a short biography, skimming over Saint Laurent’s Algerian birth and somewhat privileged life with an attorney/insurance agent father, doting mother and two younger sisters.
A sickly, nervous boy, Saint Laurent had difficulty in school but showed early signs of artistic talent. At age 17, his mother took him to Paris and introduced him to the editor of French Vogue. Through this important contact, the teenager enrolled in a prestigious design school and, more importantly, met Christian Dior, the founder of a Parisian fashion empire. So impressed was Dior that he hired the youth almost on the spot. When Dior suddenly died in 1957, Saint Laurent, then 21, catapulted to the top.
In 1960, the young designer was conscripted into the French army, but because of his precarious health, he collapsed and underwent treatment for a nervous breakdown. Released from his military obligation, he hoped to resume work at Dior, but the company apparently reneged on his contract. A lawsuit followed, and with the settlement, Saint Laurent started his own label, Rive Gauche.
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, his fresh approach to fashion and controversial crossover styles made him famous. He left behind the nipped-in waist and big skirts from Dior’s ultra feminine designs and introduced the comfort and ease of men’s wear into feminine clothing. Following on Coco Chanel’s groundbreaking change in the silhouette and fabrics of women’s apparel, Saint Laurent further feminized the basic shapes of the male wardrobe. He adapted blazers and designed pant suits for women. He put the pea coat on the runway along with an entirely new form of evening wear for women – the tuxedo.
You’ll see this evolution displayed on what seems like hundreds of mannequins. Apparently, Saint Laurent saved every design, dress and suit. The exhibit begins with his early Dior cocktail dresses and then the cross-over works; the infamous pea coat, a black-leather biker-inspired jacket with mink cuffs, elegant safari jackets, blazers and pantsuits.
“Imaginary Journeys” is a section of fashions inspired by traditional ethnic clothing from Africa, Asia, and Europe. Colorful and exotic, they look more like costumes than wearable clothing. And they precede what may be the most unusual room of all, an all-black area where more than 100 mannequins stand in rows dressed in theme and variations of the iconic tuxedo – with skirts, pants, knickerbockers, see-through blouses, what have you.
The exhibit closes in a huge room titled “The Last Ball.” Standing beneath chandeliers on an elegant staircase, 29 mannequins are dressed in opulent evening gowns. Some are elaborately sequined or encrusted with jewels. Many have elegant silhouettes with sharp jackets or flowing trains. All have been conceived in contemporary terms with occasional echoes of earlier centuries. Luxury fabrics range from watered silk, velvet, taffeta, faille, organza, lace, to crêpe de Chine.
It’s here the signature YSL black dress with its pink satin bodice and enormous back bow stands. Paris Rose, 1983, is European interpretation of the Japanese kimono with its wide obi wrap, one of the simplest yet most elegant works in the entire collection. Paris Rose betrays just what design is all about – taking a fresh look at a something common and basically functional, a little cloth bow, and transforming it into a big design idea.
The Last Ball happens is a recreation of Saint Laurent’s final exhibition from 2002 before he retired to his luxurious home in Marrakech. In his final years, Saint Laurent became increasingly reclusive and died of brain cancer in 2008.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at email@example.com.