The city is clothed in the milky contours of autumn as I cycle from the busy streets of the 4th arrondissement down to the river. Now and then, the dome of the Pantheon rises above the left bank bustle to salute the grateful nation’s heroes – Voltaire, Rousseau, Jean Jaurès, Marie Curie. Before I leave the riverside to turn into the well-heeled streets of the 16th arrondissement, the cupola of Les Invalides heaves into view on my left, hunkered over Napoleon’s tomb.
France makes the most of its heroes. Commemoration is a constant, an unbroken preoccupation with glory, reflecting generously onto la grande nation.
So it’s with slight trepidation that I enter yet another set of hallowed halls. Home from 1974 onwards to the haute couture house of Yves Saint Laurent until the master’s retirement in 2002, the elegant, cream-coloured building at 5, Avenue Marceau opened its doors last month onto the work of a man called “the Pied Piper of fashion” (Diana Vreeland). Will I catch a glimpse, between the twills and taffetas presented so fetchingly at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, of the man who changed the way women dress?
As I wander past subtly lit mannequins resplendent in the designer’s trademark creations it occurs to me that I’m barking up the wrong tree. The museum (privately run by the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent) focuses not the human being, but the creator-artist behind these carefully crafted fancies. The lush oranges and pinks of the 1989 bougainvillea cape, the lean, tailored precision of his bolero and cossack ensembles, the gorgeous sweep of his monochrome evening gowns: these pieces were – are – the prism of inspirations and influences, synthesized via meticulous processes into enduring, material fact.
This work, both as process and result, is the museum’s self-proclaimed focus – and its claim to posterity. The visitor’s guide says so with endearing frankness. The “desire to create a patrimony first arose in 1964, when Saint Laurent decided to set aside certain designs after each show …”. 1964: those were early days, just two years after Saint Laurent and his business partner (and onetime life partner) Pierre Bergé founded the Yves Saint Laurent fashion brand; only six years after Saint Laurent’s ground-breaking trapeze dress design for Christian Dior and one year before his own legendary Mondrian collection in 1965. Posterity was a long-term project.
So don’t come knocking here, at 5 Avenue Marceau, for insights into the master’s depression or drug use – into the untidy chaos of existence. Save such prurience for dark cinematic spaces and more provocative versions of YSL’s life.
Look instead at the detail (where the devil famously resides) and you may find a different story: an obsession with order that deconstructs the artist, revealing the frailties that shore up the pain of dedication and discipline. Here are the blossoms on the bougainvillea cape – meticulously positioned to suggest natural disorder; the plissés on an evening dress – abandon settled in regimented lines; the books in the studio – marshaled into an alphabet of inspiration from Ensor to Hockney, via Fabergé and Giacometti; the artfully arranged photos on a pin board – Loulou and Catherine and French bulldogs are the fixed stars in YSL’s firmament. The Desk (one is tempted to capitalize everything – The Desk, The Bolero, The Dogs) is a matrix of right angles with just two or three sloping pencils.
Yes, this might be him. Yves – the man behind whom it was forbidden to walk during a presentation. Who insisted on the same seating plan for each show, the same chairs, the same flowery garlands. Who spent the same weeks of each year (1-15 of June and December) at his home in Morocco, planning new collections.
It would be lovely to own a dress. Or a cape. Or a tuxedo.
But this is the man I wish I’d known.