PARIS — Yves Saint Laurent, the master of couture, has returned less than two years after his death in a major retrospective previewed Monday, covering his four decades as a fashion designer whose artistry empowered women.
The exhibition features 307 pieces from the designer's collection, both haute couture and ready-to-wear, from his start in 1958 with Christian Dior to loosely pleated chiffon gowns in his final collection in 2002.
In between, the visitor takes a walk through the innovative themes that mark fashion today, from the tuxedo, introduced in 1966, to the opulent use of gold and the so-called "color collisions," the bold pairings of colors now seen in salons and on city streets.
The tribute to Saint Laurent, who died in June 2008 at the age of 71, opens in the midst of Paris fashion shows, with the preview held on the day the YSL brand displays its fall ready-to-wear collection.
The retrospective takes place far from the catwalks, fittingly in the sumptuous halls of the recently renovated 19th century Petit Palais where the city of Paris houses its Musee des Beaux Arts, home to many old masters.
"Yves Saint Laurent is a master," said Gilles Chazal, director of the Petit Palais, which lies off the Champs-Elysees Avenue.
Longtime partner Pierre Berge painstakingly conserved all of Saint Laurent's work, including scraps of cloth. It is the Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation that is the force behind the retrospective, whose patron is France's first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a former fashion model for the designer. The Matisse-inspired "doves of peace" dress she wore in a gargantuan fashion show at the start of the 1998 World Cup, hosted by France, is among those on display – a very short and shoulderless white dress with huge appliques of two doves.
High moments in Saint Laurent's career, which he bowed out of in 2002, include his beginnings with Dior that produced the flared "Trapeze" dresses that became a fashion staple.
Then came the safari jacket, and the tuxedo for women, a revolutionary concept that thrives today as a standard item of clothing for many working women. The exhibit has the gamut of versions, shown with pants, skirts, as a dress and even a tuxedo jacket with shorts.
Power has traditionally been held by men and "by slipping clothes warn by men onto women's shoulders, he gave women power," Berge said.
His "scandal collection" followed in 1971, a 1940s-inspired retro look that appalled critics. Their remarks are used as wall decoration in the retrospective: "Can one be so mistaken?" wrote one French critic at the time.
Some of Saint Laurent's favorite artists show up in his clothes, including Mondrian with a dress created in 1965 of such clean rectangular lines that mimic the purity Saint Laurent saw in the painter.
One of the show's two curators, Florence Muller, described Saint Laurent as a "couturier of harmony, of balance" neither a full-fledged minimalist nor an 'extravagant baroque."
"There is an incredible tension between the two extremes," said Farid Chenoune, the other curator.
The retrospective peeks into Saint Laurent's creative process and even shows him undressed with a series of nude poses shot in 1971 for his first male perfume. The chosen shot became an iconic portrait of the couturier.