Yves Saint Laurent at work. Yves Saint Laurent at work.

Ten years after the death of Yves Saint Laurent, his legacy is as strong as ever.

And it’s fair to say that the designer, who passed away at 71, was regarded as a phenomenon from the age of 21 on. Born in Algeria, he enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Algiers and demonstrated an affinity for fashion even at a young age, designing dresses for his mother and sisters.

Foreshadowing what would prove to be a life-long rivalry, he beat out a 21-year-old Karl Lagerfeld in a 1954 design contest and won an introduction to Christian Dior. At 19, he was Dior’s second-in-command and when the designer died suddenly in 1957, he found himself the head of Paris’ premiere fashion house.

His first solo collection won rave reviews for his “trapeze dress” design, and Laurent’s stardom seemed confirmed. A wedge was driven through his career, however, when he was drafted to serve in the French Army. Twenty days into service, Laurent suffered a nervous breakdown. While hospitalized, he was informed that he had been fired from Dior. The news plunged him into an even deeper state of collapse.

With the support of his partner, Pierre Bergé, Laurent got back on his feet. He successfully sued Dior for violating his contract and managed to reinvent himself by founding his own eponymous line. It was clear that the creative genius that had singlehandedly resuscitated Dior had moved on, and his fan base followed.

The house of YSL became known for one success after another. Le Smoking tuxedo jacket, the “Mondrian” collection, and safari jackets for men and women all became instant classics. Laurent pioneered the concept of Ready-to-Wear while blurring the line between art and clothing with his soft yet streamlined aesthetic. The YSL look was a perfect fit within the beatnik era. Deeply influenced by painters like Picasso and Matisse, Laurent became renowned especially for his ability to mix colors.

As he grew older, Laurent largely withdrew from the public eye. He rarely left his palatial residences other than to take a bow, often quite unsteadily, at the end of shows. He and Bergé were officially joined in a civil union just days before Laurent died of brain cancer on June 1, 2008.

Tom Ford, Hedi Slimane, and Anthony Vaccarello are just three prestigious names that have become all the more respected thanks to their involvement with the house of Saint Laurent. While the label has and will continue to change under different directors, it still retains the enigmatic and alluring stamp of its founder, making it a revered red carpet favorite in addition to a cherished household name. — jas