By Barb Harmon
Audrey Hepburn once said, “Paris is always a good idea” and with the opening of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, I can’t think of a better time to visit the City of Light. When the museum opened in October 2017, I was fortunate to visit. When an invitation was extended for my husband and I to visit the ‘second collection’ this past spring, I leapt at the opportunity. The exhibit did not disappoint. For the first timer…knowing a bit about the uber talented designer will enhance your visit to this world-class museum.
A Little Background — A Genius In the Making
Saint Laurent’s rise to fame came early in life when he was appointed Christian Dior’s successor at 21…two years after arriving at The House of Dior. As the youngest Couturier, he handled the pressure magnificently. With only six months to put together the January 1958 collection, he hit it out of the ballpark. The collection was well received and he was on the fast track for a brilliant career as a designer.
In 1961, Yves and his partner Pierre Bergé, launched the legendary Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture House at 30 rue bis Spontini. His first collection debuted in 1962 featuring the first trench coat and peacoat…still considered essential items by women everywhere.
1966 brought Le Smoking…the first tuxedo for women. Fifty two years later, it is still relevant. Casually paired with jeans, Le Smoking is considered très chic. The first pant suit…1967…the first jumpsuit and safari jacket…1968. Walk into any clothing store today and you will undoubtedly find these garments on a rack. The man was ahead of the times.
Saint Laurent had the foresight in 1964 to set aside pieces from each collection. This included sketches, fabric swatches, related accessories…no stone was left unturned. These items were inventoried and stored in a temperature controlled environment designed to preserve the history of the house. He could visualize a museum dedicated to his legacy.
Saint Laurent was not only a couturier. He designed garments for film and stage…costume balls and music-hall reviews. Fragrance…of course he could create fragrance…for men and women. Jewelry, cosmetics, magnificent artwork, he executed all with ease. He was a true renaissance man.
In 1974 the fashion house desperately needed additional space and moved to an elegant Hôtel Particulier on 5 avenue Marceau which houses the Musée today.
Not Your Conventional Retirement
In January 2002, Saint Laurent announced he had designed his last collection and was closing his couture house. He was not retiring per se but the public was not privy to this secret. He and Pierre worked tirelessly on their next project which opened in 2004…The Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent. The Fondation hosted a variety of art, photography, and fashion exhibitions.
Saint Laurent passed away in 2008…the Fondation continued until 2014 when Bergé decided it was time to turn it into the Holy Grail for all things Yves Saint Laurent. After two years of refurbishment, it opened as Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris which brings us to today’s visit.
Up The Stairs Into History — The Visit Begins
After climbing a small flight of stairs we were ushered into a large opulent room…complete with sparkly chandeliers, golden statues, gilded mirrors…to watch a Saint Laurent fashion show on film. Perched on a small gilded chair in the salon where the shows were held (in 1976 Yves moved the shows to the Hotel InterContinental), we were transported back in time. It must have been thrilling to watch the show live. When the film was over, you could hear a pin drop.
The Iconic Fashions
You’ll spot them as soon as you step into the darkened gallery…the trench coat, the peacoat, classic day dresses, highly embellished evening ensembles, and more. The mannequins are beautifully displayed making it easy to see the details on each garment. As a teen, I loved nothing better than to flip through the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Seeing these garments that graced those pages gave me chills.
The History Of A Collection
Twice a year for two weeks, Saint Laurent retreated to his home in Marrakech…to sketch. Returning to Paris, these sketches soon evolved into the garments that would appear on the catwalk. From start to finish…the process took approximately six weeks. There is a gorgeous display of sketches with fabric swatches attached, notes, accessory suggestions and confirmations…so much detail on every sheet.
He was privileged to work with world-renowned craftsmen…embroiderers, weavers, gold and silversmiths to name a few. Hundreds of hours went into creating the evening jackets on display. Hands down, these are true masterpieces.
A Home Movie — An Eagle With Two Heads
Climbing an ornate staircase up to the Mezzanine, we walked into an intimate theater. The rounded bench seats about 20…comfortably. The overflow sat on the floor. The lights dimmed and the film began…in French with English subtitles. We are watching home movies of Yves’ childhood, his history with Bergé, what’s involved with opening and managing a haute couture house, everyday life. It’s very personal and quite amusing at times. Saint Laurent once described the couple as “that great eagle with two heads who navigated the seas, transcended boundaries, and invaded the world with its unparalleled scope, that was us.” Once again, when the film is over, you could hear a pin drop.
Homage To Fashion
Climbing up another flight of stairs, we find ourselves surrounded by spectacular garments. Saint Laurent explored the history of clothing through his designs…he was a ‘fashion historian’. It’s easy to pick out what inspired these designs…the Roaring Twenties, the Middle Ages, the togas of ancient Greece…it’s all represented in the most sumptuous fabrics with exquisite detail. Homage to fashion is the perfect ‘send off’ to the studio.
The Studio — Frozen In Time
The bright, light filled studio starkly contrasts with the rest of the couture house. This is a room designed for work and immediately one feels this is the heart of the house. The room is not particularly large but the mirrored wall gives the impression of a larger space. The mirror was a tool used by Saint Laurent when working on his creations. He looked at the model’s reflection in the mirror which allowed him to view a garment properly and make adjustments with ease…often while sitting on the floor.
Opposite the large windows are simple shelves overflowing with books that inspired the designer, rolls of fabric, bins of accessories…so much to take in. Two large desks are covered with sketches, mementoes and letters…the history of the house. Saint Laurent’s desk…very simple…two trestles topped with a cloth covered board. His iconic glasses sit among his keepsakes. The white coat he always wore hangs over his chair…waiting for his return.
Behind The Scenes of The Couture House
The couture house employed over two hundred people, it was a well-oiled machine. There’s a series of six videos taking the visitor from the sketch to the sale of the garment. Narrated by staff members, it is fascinating to see how everything came together.. Of course the subtitles are in English.
The Cabinet of Curiosities
Leaving the bright studio, we descend the stairs to view the collection of jewelry on display. Unlike other designers, Saint Laurent believed costume jewelry best accessorized his designs. The floor to ceiling wall of jewelry is dazzling and ranges from simple pieces to over the top creations.
Opposite the Cabinet of Curiosities is a wall devoted to Saint Laurent’s drawings. His talent as an artist is impressive. The drawings are colorful and lively…he had the gift from a very early age.
Here Comes The Bride —The Finale
The wedding gown was the highlight of every fashion show and was often over the top. The gown on display…short, sassy, and so Saint Laurent. I was told by a staff member, “This was his favorite wedding gown.”
There’s Always A Reason To Return
The collection owned by The Foundation is enormous…over 34,703 objects. This includes couture, accessories, personal items, artwork, photographs, and costumes. Several rotations a year allows the public to see the magic that is Yves Saint Laurent and provides a reason to return. I’m looking forward to my next visit.
Address: 5 avenue Marceau, 16th ARR
Hours: Closed Monday. Tuesday – Sunday 11:00 am – 6:00 pm. Friday till 9 pm
Admission: €10 at the door, online tickets €11
If Morocco is on your travel radar, set aside time to visit Musée Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakech. The opening coincided with Paris and has been well received by the public.
Address: rue Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakech
My husband and I were guest’s of Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris but all opinions as usual are entirely my own.
All photos by Barb Harmon