Thomas de Monchaux | Essays

Remembering Yves St. Laurent

Yves St. Laurent, photo: World News Australia

What does it mean to design? What does it mean to have been designed? In one sense, the word is entirely superfluous: every artifact of human invention, assembly, adaption, or production, from cathedral to coffee cup, has by definition been designed. Within the discourse of designers, the less obviously an object is the result of willful styling or shaping — the less apparently it has been designed by a designer — the more likely it is to be celebrated as a design icon. Thus Anglepoise trumps Tizio. But this timeless authorlessness leaves us at a loss.

So perhaps a better way to answer the question is from the outside in. If one were to contemplate (brace yourself) which artifacts made more people most aware of the fact of those artifacts having been designed by designers, the answer would be not cities or buildings or furniture or graphics. But surely: clothes. To say “designer,” now more than ever in this age of mass class, of media popularization of couture culture, (of America’s Next Top Project Model Runway Stylista), is to say “fashion designer.” So what can we learn from the presence of fashion within design, and of design within fashion? For example, and more precisely, what can we learn from the work of Yves St. Laurent, the iconic French fashion designer who passed away this Summer?

The trajectory of St. Laurent’s career is well-known. At 18, a dress design competition paved the way to an internship with Christian Dior; at 21, Dior’s death enabled (and required) St. Laurent’s legendarily acclaimed first collection. That critical triumph launched a lifelong career in haute-couture, and (with the introduction in the late-60s of his Rive Gauche label), in the ready-to-wear clothes that did much to establish his legend as an elite populist (and even feminist). His personal affect and sensibility itself framed a kind of template for the persona of the contemporary designer, from Lagerfeld and Jacobs to Libeskind and Diller: a steely frailty, a glittering melancholy, a self-effacing grandeur. 

But from that trajectory we can also extract three themes that perhaps transcend the cryptically overdetermined self-referentiality of fashion, and tell us something about design, and what happens when it’s unleashed into the world.

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History has always worn clothes: the latest ladies’ styles from France, among other things, changed significantly between 1789 and 1812 (less fabric, better posture). But today we’re accustomed to the idea that what is stylish in clothes changes every six months or six minutes. The idea is that a sequence of formal transformations both reflects and shapes more intangible shifts in the Zeitgeist. Hemlines go down when the stock market plunges, says the legend. More generally, in the tropes of design history consolidated by the latter 19th Century and self-consciously enacted thereafter, different times and technologies call for different formal languages, from Gothic and Classical to Grunge and Mod. It’s debatable whether this is a democratically organic process (wherein the word on the street filters up to the atelier), or a calculating capitalist process of planned obsolence. Or, naturally, both. What seems to distinguish St. Laurent’s work within this theme is that his collections between the mid-60s and mid-70s cemented, if not invented, this phenomenon that we now take for granted: that like clockwork each season we encounter the new new. In Dior’s “New Look” of 1947, a suddenly narrow-waisted, low-hemlined dress spoke to the transformation from war to post-war. But St. Laurent’s work especially transformed this singular moment of metamorphosis into a constant recurrence. Timeless timeliness.

More particularly, in St. Laurent’s work, while this change was in part one of fabric and visual reference, it was most significantly one of geometry, of form, of shape, of profile. That first post-Dior collection essayed a sort of triangular dress sillhouette, followed by something linear, then by something convex, and on and on. One quality that ostensibly distinguishes “designing” from its sister “styling,” as modes of applying form to objects, is the seeming constancy of the former, and the seeming changeability of the latter. A good design solution is a good design solution, goes the argument, regardless of the calendar or clock. But as for style, what’s lively in April is deadly in September.

Nothing emphasizes the constant qualities of a particular designer’s hand or eye more than the continual formal changes in his or her output. Authorship isn’t in what changes, but in what doesn’t. If the general geometry is always in flux, then we’re drawn ever more closely to the details, decisions, and doo-dads that stay the same. And the idea, perhaps, of where the quality of designed-ness is to be located in an object becomes ever more closely associated with this finer grain: the way a seam is rolled, a corner turned, a detail positioned. The more inconstant the sequence of forms seems to be, the more the work seems to be shaped by some authorless in-the-air trend, then the more visible this other form of constancy, and of authorship, becomes. While it’s commonplace, especially in fashion, to imagine that the only thing constant is change, St. Laurent’s work suggests that the only thing constant, suprisingly, is constancy.

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Yves St. Laurent’s “Le Smoking” tuxedo suit for women, photo taken by Helmut Newton, 1975

The quality of timelessness in St. Laurent’s work is closely associated with his exercises in type. His collections of the 1960s and 70s appropriated the forms and details of certain archetypical garments from, it seemed, beyond the seasonal whims of the fashion system. Thus the safari jacket; the navy peacoat; the black dress; the Bogart trench coat; the tuxedo. Each of these would be thematized into a sequence of erudite remixes. In 1966, for example, St. Laurent’s Spring collection recalled a man’s tuxedo suit or dinner jacket ensemble, transgendering it into “Le Smoking,” a slinky feminine commentary. Which is, common wisdom holds, the origin of today’s ubiquitous (and recently politically significant) women’s pantsuit. That very same year saw the original publication of Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which essayed the same erudite exercise of cataloging, appropriating, and cleverly mutating a populist/elitist historical canon.

In the 1980s and 90s, St. Laurent’s later work (sometimes suggestively called his “classical” period), saw a further layer of cross-referencing and cross-dressing. St. Laurent re-appropriated and re-remixed his own appropriations and remixes, so a smoking jacket becomes a commentary on a commentary on a smoking jacket — creating a mannered set of references that, as much as Venturi’s clever pastiches, describes whatever we mean by that interesting word, post-modern. Conversely, the very garments that were the formal foundation for these transformations were chosen, perhaps, because of their universality and uniformity — qualities, associated with, among other things, the notion of Modernism in design.

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One trope of Modernism in design is an interest in structure, and in the relationship between how something looks, and how it holds itself together. Tectonics in architecture becomes, perhaps, tailoring in clothes. Highly tailored and structured fashion artifacts, (like the Chanel suit jacket, or the very corset from which Chanel was said to have liberated those jacket-wearers), have a shape and structure independent of their wearers. But for clothes especially, structure is site: the bones are the body. The specific transformation that St. Laurent applied to that tuxedo was to make it more structurally dependent on the body of the wearer: to locate sites of adherence and movement between fabric and skin that retained something of the original independent profile of the man’s suit, but introduced a loose, tight, and dynamic co-dependence between how the clothes stand up, and how the clothes make us stand. This participation of the body in the structure and performance of the object points to larger ideas: the design of an object doesn’t stop at its physical boundary. This is not news to people who think about the ergonomics of chairs and can-openers. But it’s a tonic to an all-too-common way of looking at designed artifacts as isolated phenomena, rather than as sites of mysterious and intimately anonymous collaborations between maker and user.

To these themes we should add a footnote. On the eve of the upcoming September Fashion Weeks that mark the true beginning of the year, it’s worth remembering this: perhaps the most invisible but lasting contribution of St. Laurent’s to the intersections between design, architecture, and fashion, was his adoption, along with other designers in the mid-1970s, of the raised runway. Elevating the display of clothes a meter or so above the floor is a gesture we now take for granted, but that redirecting of our gaze changed fashion by changing the way we look at fashion. This slight spatial isolation made it all the more photographable, spectacular, theatrical and visible. And has something to do with the way that the word, “fashion”, now hovers like an elegant ghost, always already before the word “designer.”

Thomas de Monchaux, the inaugural AIGA Winterhouse Design Writing Award winner, is working on a Graham Foundation-supported book about 2 Columbus Circle, New York.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History

Comments [11]

Does the fact that the Anglepoise was less designed and more engineered render it authorless - as far as the canon of industrial design is concerned? Everyone in design should know that it was the creation of British engineer George Cawardine in 1933, then produced from 1934. This is probably more a reflection of the way that design history has rendered the typical self-effacing British designer-engineer in contrast to the Italian concept-designer.
Paul Linnell

you can learn how to debase your "good" name by selling it out to tobacco companies, that's one thing you can "learn" from ysl.
Peter Michael

oo la la, nobody seems to care about YSL no more...except the blogger and two other fellows...
Patrick Gallant

Patrick Gallant, Yours is easily the most useless and unnecessary comment of the day on this site. The editors would appreciate it if you'd either make a constructive contribution, or go elsewhere.
William Drenttel

Actually, St. Laurent wasn't the first to put models on runways. Here's a picture of his 1959 show in Moscow.

Rather, St. Laurent was at the forefront of using black models. So I guess we have him to thank for Tyra.

Oh... and I've seen more than my fair share of runway shows at street and floor level where the audience was milling around the models, sitting at the same level as the models, sitting in bleachers above the models, etc.

But my favorite happened one year ago today: the Yohji Yamamoto/ Y-3 show on West 22nd Street. He created a rainstorm under the High Line where passersby were given umbrellas and invited to actually walk across the models' paths. Glorious, random and exuberant.

You can see people running across the background in the videos here.

oops, sorry. that was a YSL show. scratch that.

Nice article...going back in history.

I would have to agree with Gallant, though, in this case. YSL is a sort of faded dream in the world of fashion design, dependent as it is on the vagaries of the moment. His name is only evoked when it is time to talk about ghosts of the past who may have had influence. Perhaps a better personage to write about whose work is actually "classic" is Madeline Vionnet, or perhaps that is not as trendy enough to have merited attention.

Voila. and Oo-la-la, as the snide Gallant remarked.
Heather Clawson

I wonder if fashion designers aren't so high profile as they seem so intent on getting credit. I see real designers,Dior, Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin, Ferre, fighting for attention wth "designers" who's main talent seems to be there giant reference libraries from which they create. Ralph Lauren comes to mind. Interestingly editing is now seen as creation , accompanied by a commitment to taking credit for the work although the work was done by others. This used to be standard at architectural firms but has now gone. I wonder if this will ever happen with something as ephemeral as clothing.

Another opportunity to serve up a great movie ( movie title ) that represents a universal law so to speak. "Things Change" - 1988, David Mamet. As observed in this post, it was not that long ago that "designer" and "fashion" were synonymous. To the point that even the masses could recognize the fashionable author. But in this case, maybe not the details per se. ( The masses seldom focuses on an author, the details, unless the author captures mass attention and then becomes, famous. Famous details then become the topics of conversation. )

But, TC, and maybe we now live in the "Year of Designer" as practically any object can affix an authorless D label to it. So what's changed? D is now not about author as much as process, or even more so, lifestyle. The D label is now all about details to a general populace and how they affect our day-to-day. Good-grip can openers, labradoodles. You name it.

It really doesn't matter if whether YSL was the first to make models appear on the runway, what matters is the contributions that he made in the fashion world. Like his sublime creations of the female business suit, sophisticated yet chic!
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