Born in Algeria, Saint Laurent moved to Paris when he was seventeen. He studied at Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Yves won several fashion design contests. In one, sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat, he beat out a young German student named Karl Lagerfeld. Michel de Brunhoff, editor in chief of French Vogue, recognized the similarity in some of Yves sketches and Christian Dior’s. He introduced them, and Dior hired him immediately. Yves reportedly was so shy he said he “could not speak in front of the famous designer.”
Dior died four years later from heart complications. Saint Laurent, at age twenty-one, was named chief designer at Christian Dior. His first collection was a big hit and surely saved the venerable old house.
Yves was then drafted into the French Army to fight in Algeria. Bullied because he was gay, he suffered a serious nervous breakdown and his time in the army lasted only twenty days. To add to his troubles, The House of Dior was unhappy with his latest collection and fired him while he was in the army. It is hard to imagine Yves in the military. He was so shy and fragile that getting through a normal day was sometimes difficult for him. But put Saint Laurent in his atelier, and he was a five-star general in the world of fashion. He was a man of incredible taste and sophistication.
In 1958 Saint Laurent met French industrialist Pierre Bergé who became his partner in business and life. In 1961, they launched the Yves Saint Laurent Company. Bergé convinced Yves to sue Dior for firing him while in the Army. He did and won. This provided some of the startup capital for the Yves Saint Laurent Company. While their personal relationship ended in 1976, Saint Laurent and Bergé remained business partners for life and close friends. Saint Laurent never could have succeeded without Bergé. He had not only a first-rate creative business mind, but he also understood what it took to keep Yves at his most productive.
I remember Bergé telling me a personal story to show how removed from normal everyday living Yves was. Pierre said he had just left home, and Yves told him he found a “wonderful new fruit in the refrigerator. It has a great texture.” Bergé asked him to show him the fruit and when he did, he said, “Yves this is a potato.” Bergé added, “Yves rarely went into the kitchen.”
While not at home in the kitchen, Saint Laurent was certainly at home in his design studio. Many believe he had the best sense of color of any designer who came before or after, him. He designed all of his own fabrics and had them made at the House of Abraham in Switzerland. Yves credits his color sensibilities to his North African exposure. He lived his life with one foot in North Africa and the other in Paris.
Moroccan Days and Nights
In 1966, he fell in love with Marrakech and bought a house there that became a lifelong love affair. He and Bergé also fell in love with the beautiful garden Jardin Majorelle. The garden was designed and nurtured by artist Jacques Majorelle. When Bergé and Saint Lauren heard it was going to become the site of a hotel, they purchased it. Yves actually sketched many of his collections there and then returned to his atelier in Paris to create them. “In Morocco, I realized the range of colors I use was that of the zelliges, zouacs, djellabasm, and caftans. The boldness seen since then in my work, I owe to this country, to its forceful harmonies, to its audacious combinations, to the fervor of its creativity. This culture became mine, but I wasn’t satisfied with just absorbing it; I took, transformed, and adapted it,” Saint Laurent said.
When watching his collections, one wondered how he could mix so many colors and make them work together? I remember WWD’s fashion editor, Etta Froio, asking Diane Vreeland, who was admired as one of the greatest editors, if not the greatest, editor of Vogue, what impressed her the most about Yves? Vreeland answered, “The color, the color, good god almighty the color.” Shaking her head, she walked away.
After one YSL collection, I asked the fashion coordinator for the then high-end department store I. Magnin in San Francisco what he thought of the clothes in the YSL collection he had just seen. He exclaimed, “He deserves every jewel in his illustrious crown,” and off he went shaking his head.
Saint Laurent’s Legacy
Yves Saint Laurent is arguably the best designer who ever lived. His extraordinary talent dominated the fashion world for nearly three decades. He has two museums dedicated to his legacy, one in his beloved Marrakech and another in Paris.
Saint Laurent’s show was always the last one in Paris. It was common for the perceived best designer to show last in order to keep the retailers from going home early. There were a lot of great designers in Europe, but after having viewed more than fifty collections in three weeks, most of the press and retailers were more than ready to go home. Then Saint Laurent would show and you realized what fashion magic is all about. There was a sense that you were looking at perfection, a mastery in concept, fabrics, color, silhouette, lengths, and craftsmanship.
“My small job as a couturier is to make clothes that reflect our time, I am convinced women want to wear pants,” Saint Laurent used to say. Saint Laurent was about empowering women. He was famous for designing “Le Smoking,” the classic tuxedo suit for women. This was followed by the safari jacket, the jumpsuit, and a trench coat that was to be worn even when it wasn’t raining. It was all about clothes that were sophisticated and made a statement.
He was also, like a lot of designers of this period, a full-fledged member of café society. Regine’s in Paris was his favorite playground. Regine, a former torch singer, opened the first major nightclub and discotheque where live music was replaced by recorded music. Rich and famous Parisians were regulars. She became the so-called Queen of the Night, and a must-stop for celebrities of the 70s and 80s passing through Paris.
Things didn’t start percolating at Regine’s until after midnight, and it wasn’t uncommon for partiers to leave as the sun came up. I once saw Yves, who was completely intoxicated, carried out of Regine’s by two men, one holding him under the arms and the other by his feet. It was no secret that Saint Laurent had an alcohol and drug problem during much of his life. He blamed it on his period in the army and being fired by Dior. He was heavily drugged while in an army hospital, and also received electric shock treatment. I also witnessed him staggering down the runway after some of his shows, supported by two models. I once asked Yves if he had trouble getting to work in the morning? He said, “No, because my dog wakes me up and tells me when it’s time to go work.”
The year 1971 was one of controversy. Saint Laurent showed a 1940s-inspired collection that many thought was a tribute to the Nazis. He also launched a unisex fragrance, YSL Pour Homme. Saint Laurent posed nude sitting on top of the fragrance bottle for the advertising campaign. It was quite scandalous for its time.
I remember Saint Laurent’s big celebration later in 1978 for the launch of his fragrance OPIUM in New York City. It was held aboard the Peking, one of the last large sailing cargo vessels. It is now permanently moored at South Street Seaport in New York Harbor. More than a hundred people were invited. It was the biggest and most exciting celebration of a fragrance launch ever. All of the celebrities showed, and it ended with a massive fireworks display on the East River. Andy Warhol wrote in his memoirs that the launch was one party he was sorry he missed.
Yves and Pierre Bergé went on to Studio 54 with other launch party guests. Some could not get past the rope guys at the insanely popular club. While there, I had two detective friends from Manhattan’s Midtown South precinct arrive and perform a mock arrest on Yves for selling opium. We took him for a ride in a New York City police car and he kept asking the detectives to keep using the siren. He told Pierre Bergé, “It was really, really exciting.”
The name OPIUM turned out to be a brilliant success. It was, according to Yves, meant to signify “seduction and passionate love.” Due to its name, OPIUM was banned in Australia and the Middle East but it was an instant success with American and European customers. It remains a significant seller in today’s market.
In hindsight, it is difficult to know exactly what Pierre Bergé was specifically responsible for in creating the YSL brand. Yves was a fashion genius, but he could not have succeeded without Pierre’s personal guidance and business support. Pierre was very creative in his own right. Being Yves’s romantic partner provided Pierre with the insight and ability to coerce Yves into agreeing to many of his business ideas. Together they transformed the French fashion industry. Pierre was the driving business and marketing force. He was a tough, outspoken, difficult man, as opposed to Saint Laurent who was shy, nervous and retiring.
Bergé once said, “Yves is a man of exceptional intelligence practicing the trade of an imbecile.” If you knew Bergé, you would realize this statement tells you a lot about the way he thinks. In business, he was a man ahead of his time. He played both bad cop and good cop with Saint Laurent. Pierre convinced Yves to develop a ready-to-wear line and just use his couture line as a loss-leader marketing technique. The couture created an umbrella for the YSL brand to propel his licensing agreements. From ready-to-wear to fragrances and accessories, Bergé built out the YSL Company. Thus, he led French fashion into its golden era.
Bergé, however, was not optimistic for the long-term future of designer fashions. He told The New York Times in a 2015 interview that the time of the major designers was over, “To me now it’s all money and marketing, it’s all something like a lie.” To raise capital in 1971, Bergé
sold the ready-to-wear division to the Squibb Corporation. He brought it back two years later. In 1986, he arranged the sale of 25 percent of the company to Carlo de Benedetti and used the money to buy Charles of the Ritz, which owned the YSL fragrances. YSL became the first French designer company to be listed on the Paris Bourse. In 1993, Bergé sold the Yves Saint Lauren Company for nearly $700 million to Elf Sarnoff. Sarnoff sold it to Gucci in 1999. Bergé sold $20 million worth of his holdings in the Yves Saint Laurent Company just before the firm announced a 95 percent drop in earnings in 1992 and in 1994 was indicted and convicted of insider trading. He was fined $200,000.
Saint Laurent, with Bergé’s brilliant backing, created the most acclaimed fashions in the most acclaimed period of fashion. Yves’s talent was among the greats that include Chanel, Balenciaga, and Christian Dior. Most fashion critics would say he was the best.“I would like my dresses and my drawings to be studied 100 years from now,” Saint Laurent said. They will be.
Giorgio Armani in Stride with the Times
Giorgio Armani is the most important designer of The Golden Age. He gave women a new style that was perfectly timed for the massive cultural shift taking place for women in the 1970s. Women were embracing new freedoms, and allowing themselves to become bolder and more assertive. In the decade of the 70s, women surpassed men in college enrollment. They began to find success in areas of business, politics, education, science, and law. Doors of opportunity were opening, and women were aggressively taking advantage. Armani met this challenge by bridging the gap in gender dressing and made man-tailored clothing fashionable for women.
Giorgio Armani went on to become the most financially successful designer in the world. According to Forbes magazine, his personal wealth in 2018 was estimated to be nearly $9 billion dollars, much more than any of his contemporaries. Giorgio also dramatically changed the way men’s suits were designed. He simplified men’s suits by tearing out virtually all of the suit jacket’s infrastructure. It became more relaxed and comfortable, and followed the body’s contour. The new look became a hit with young executives across Europe and the United States.
I regularly had lunch with him at his Milanese mansion that I would describe as luxurious simplicity. He lived and worked in this grand old mansion that he moved into in 1982. In true Armani style, you could not see one piece of evidence of the mansion’s original interior. He said he removed or covered fireplaces, moldings, and mantles to create plain walls. “I wanted a sleek, linear interior,” he said. “I wanted something that I would love living in. I love clean shapes, order, and symmetry.”
Armani was born in Piacenza, north of Milan, in 1934. During the Second World War, the town was bombed by the Allies and his house was damaged. When he was nine, he and some friends stumbled upon a sack of gunpowder. It exploded while they were fussing with it, and Armani was seriously burned. He was also temporarily blinded. His family feared he would lose his vision for good. He spent six weeks in a hospital. While recovering, he recalls the “fragrance of linden blossoms outside his hospital window transporting me to a feeling of comfort and peace.” He believes this scent had a profound effect on his healing and recovery.
Giorgio originally wanted to be a doctor, and studied medicine at the University of Milan. After three years he left school and went into the army, serving in a military hospital in Verona. That experience made him decide he did not want to pursue medicine.
While stationed there, he went to performances at the Verona Arena. It broadened his thinking about what path he really wanted to pursue. He has said if he started all over again, he would want to direct movies and plays. Giorgio’s complicated and difficult early years could have well given him the almost fanatical drive he had to succeed but it took him a while to find his true north.
Giorgio was a late bloomer. He was forty-one when he founded his company with his life partner, Sergio Galeotti, an architect. Prior to that, Armani was mostly unknown, bouncing around Italian fashion companies, not completely sure what he really wanted to do. He created freelance designs for several fashion brands in Florence and some menswear for Nino Cerruti.
Sergio recognized his talent and convinced him to open a design office in Milan in 1973. Two years later, Sergio convinced Giorgio to sell his Volkswagen Beetle convertible and use the money to open Giorgio Armani S.p.A. Armani credits Sergio’s “belief in me” as being the primary factor that propelled his success. Sergio’s personality was the opposite of Giorgio’s, who was somewhat shy and retiring, but friendly. Sergio was outgoing, full of good cheer, and amusing. I remember one small dinner at Giorgio’s home when Sergio got up and did an imitation of many of the fashion editors that covered the collections. His performance was right on target.
Sergio not only brought creative business skills to the house of Armani but a positive, fun-filled environment. Sadly, in 1985, Sergio contracted AIDS and passed away. It was a terrible blow to Giorgio, not only personally but he now also had to learn the business side of the company. AIDS not only took Sergio but also the other three top executives in the company.
Giorgio was always a hard worker, but after Sergio’s death he became a workaholic and withdrawn. The fun dinners turned into business lunches with him and his new executive team. Giorgio, with his extraordinary work ethic, often working twelve-hour days, jumped into the business and marketing sectors with both feet. He hired new management with mixed success. In the first two years after Sergio’s passing, he worked out a management system where he made all of the strategic decisions and delegated the tactical ones.
Broadening the product line was at the top of his agenda. Sergio and Giorgio had already established a business relationship in 1978 with Gruppo Finanzario Tessile, GFT, to produce all their luxury ready to wear. In 1981, they contracted with L’Oréal to produce fragrances. Accessories, underwear, and swimwear licensing deals followed in rapid succession. He continued the expansion with licensing, and eventually, he even opened restaurants and luxury hotels.
Giorgio has an encyclopedic knowledge of movies. He designed clothes for more than 100 feature films, including American Gigolo and The Untouchables. Armani is also credited with pioneering red-carpet fashion. He gave movie stars a new way to look. He once said, “A woman in a masculine suit on the red carpet is extremely elegant and sensual.” Dressing movie stars for the red carpet became a major marketing technique for his brand. Of course, all of the major designers have followed suit, or at least tried to. A dress or suit on the red carpet at the Academy Awards could be seen by a billion people worldwide. He hired Wanda McDaniel, wife of The Godfather producer Al Ruddy, to corral both male and female stars.
He had a particularly close relationship with Michelle Pfeiffer, who when first asked if she would wear Armani to the Academy Awards, answered, “Why do I need anyone to dress me? Who is this guy anyway?” She ended up wearing Armani, modeling for his campaigns, and becoming a lifelong friend.
Among others he dressed were Jodie Foster, Penelope Cruz, Sophia Loren, Julia Roberts, Salma Hayek, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Diane Keaton, Uma Thurman, Megan Fox, Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchet, Kim Basinger, Claire Danes, Reese Witherspoon, and on and on. Men he dressed ranged from George Clooney to Johnny Depp. Armani, while being true to his own style, seemed to know which star’s outfits to put a little bit of glamour in, which ones to give a touch of elegance and which ones to provide a bit of sexiness.
Although it seemed to me his lust for life, other than work, had mostly disappeared in his later years, his contribution to fashion by producing a new way for women to dress was critically important. It has secured him a lasting place in fashion history.