Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris: Behind the Scenes of Haute Couture And Silk Manufacturing
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Paris boasts some exceptional museums dedicated to fashion, as befits the capitale de la mode. Among them, Musée Saint Laurent stands out, because it is a testament to the determination of a couturier who saved samples of all his couture creations from the very first collection he launched under his name, in 1962, at a time when the notion of heritage for fashion houses was still unheard of.
For the second half of 2021, the museum presents an exhibition dedicated to Yves Saint Laurent’s close collaboration with the famed silk manufacturers of Lyon.
The museum’s collections, normally rotating once a year, cover the late creative’s entire career, until his retirement from Haute Couture in 2002, and this exhibition draws on its richness to display at the same time the evolution of his style, but also the recurrent choices of fabrics that he favored particularly. It is the case of the rich jewel tones of brocade, or the lightness of silk muslin. The collection of swatches in particular reads like a map of the inimitable YSL style, a heady mix of color, texture and opulence.
The development of silk manufacturing in Lyon dates back to the reign of François I, in the 16th century. Until then, silk textiles had been imported from Italy, but then the exponential increase in demand from the aristocracy became an unbearable drain on the coffers of France. That is when the king asked two Italian merchants established in the city to set up some weaving mills, and in 1540 the city of Lyon was granted an exclusive royal patent to produce silk.
By the 20th century, overall demand for silk had shrunk, as cheaper, synthetic textiles had replaced it on the interior decoration market. However, for the fashion industry, and haute couture in particular, thankfully the noblest of natural fibers remained the preferred choice, notably for the most sophisticated occasion wear. Brocade, damask, lampas: these complex weaves had no secrets for the storied manufacturers of Lyon, and the city secured its status of European capital of silk weaving.
When young Yves, still in his teens, started drawing clothes in his native Algiers, Algeria, he would copy the patterns of the luxurious fabrics produced by the Lyon silk makers, as advertised in fashion and celebrity magazines. The paper dolls that open the exhibition testify to the designer’s talent but also offer a glimpse of the variety of different motifs and textures being produced at the time.
Upon his arrival in Paris in 1955, Saint Laurent was hired as an assistant to Christian Dior himself. Monsieur Dior had a very close relationship with the Lyon soieurs (literally, the “silkers”), and it was natural for his aide to develop chis own personal ties with the main manufacturers, like Tassinari et Chatel, Bianchini-Férier, Bucol, Brochier, etc.
Later, as he moved on to found his namesake maison with Pierre Bergé (his work partner but also his companion in life), the couturier deepened his relationship with the makers of the textiles, adamant in the belief that “ […] It is the material that defines haute couture.”
As can be seen in the black and white photograph portraying the couturier in his first studio on rue Spontini, bolts of fabric crowded the space, with a patterned brocade taking pride of place in one corner. A master colorist, Saint Laurent found inspiration in the samples provided by the manufacturers. Their relationship was mutually beneficial, as the industry responded to the designer’s boundless creativity producing not only ever changing patterns but also new, innovative materials.
The Shakespearian Bride, a creation from 1980 and the culmination of this show, is an ode to brocade. Never one for understated elegance for occasion wear, the couturier superimposed layers of rich brocade, lamé and tulle, in a sumptuous dress that feels like a cross between a Renaissance madonna and a Byzantine icon. It showcases how the interaction between the designer and his fabric suppliers, when done right, can sublimate the clothes.
At the end of the tour, stepping into Saint Laurent’s studio, where he worked on all his collections from 1974 (when the maison moved from rue Spontini to 5 avenue Marceau, where the museum is located today) until 2002, one feels like an intruder: Everything seems to have been left untouched since the designer left, his glasses sitting on his desk, his white blouse neatly folded on the back of his chair, his beloved dog Mujik’s bowl waiting. Here again, multicolored bolts and swatches of fabric are piled high, ready to inspire the next collection.
A visit to Musée Saint Laurent is a must not only for anyone passionate about fashion, but also for those who appreciate beauty and craftsmanship: The designer championed the excellency of French artisanal skills, preserved over the centuries, ready to tackle the challenges of modernity.
Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris is situated at 5, avenue Marceau, 75116 Paris. It is open from Thursday to Sunday, from 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM. The temporary exhibition “Behind the scenes of haute couture in Lyon” is on until December 5, 2021.
Lead photo credit : Vintage photograph of YSL draping fabric on a model (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong
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