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Yves Saint Laurent Retrospective At The De Young Museum: A 'Beautiful Fall' Predicted For San Francisco

Sep 30 2008

The curators of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts are currently in the midst of packing up the more than 145 exquisite creations that make up the tribute to the late Yves Saint Laurent. The garments, which span forty years of groundbreaking fashion design and inspired countless other designers, will now make their way to San Francisco where they will grace the galleries of the de Young Museum from November 1 until March 1, 2009. I had the opportunity to view the exhibit while I was in Montreal this past August and I can honestly say I was blown away by not only the beauty of the garments but also by the breadth of Saint Laurent's influences and his ability to incorporate a seemingly endless array of cultural and artistic references into a collection. To see this exhibit in person is to understand why Saint Laurent was indeed so influential and why his recent passing left the fashion world bereft. The retrospective is a collaboration between the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the Fondation Pierre Berge -Yves Saint Laurent. One of the exhibit's curators, Jill D'Alessandro, graciously accepted to submit to our Q&A. Click on the link below to read.


1. The retrospective is the product of a collaboration with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Fondation Pierre Berge - Yves Saint Laurent. Can you tell us how the retrospective came to be?

The seeds for the exhibition were planted in 2004 when Baroness Helene de Ludinghausen introduced our director John Buchanan to Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge. Baroness Helene Ludinghausen, a close friend of Mr. Buchanan, was the directrice of the Yves Saint Laurent haute couture salons for over thirty years. Consequently, this was one of the initial exhibitions John Buchanan proposed when he took over as director of the Fine Arts Museums in early 2006. In the fall of 2006, Nathalie Bondil, director of the Montreal Museum of Art, approached the Fondation to have an exhibition. Pierre Berge suggested that we collaborate.

2. The de Young is the only U.S. venue for this exhibit. Given that this is the first complete retrospective of Saint Laurent 's work and in light of Saint Laurent's recent passing, why only one venue? Why not share his genius with multiple cities?

Definitely being the one of the organizers has its benefits. We planned and organized the exhibition during the lifetime of Yves Saint Laurent. He passed away just six days after the exhibition opened in Montreal; however, we believed prior to his passing that it was the right time to honor his complete body of work. Our original concept was to have three international cities for the exhibition; I think now we can expect a homecoming in Paris .

3. One of Saint Laurent 's most loyal clients and close friends, the late Nan Kempner, was a native of San Francisco. Will the exhibit reference her in any way once it reaches her home town?

In both the catalogue and the exhibition label text, Yves Saint Laurent’s major patrons and muses are recognized including Nan Kempner, Catherine Denueve, Betty Catroux, Niki de Saint Phalle, the Duchesse of Windsor, Helene Rochas, and Diane von Furstenberg to name a few. Nan Kempner, of course, holds a special place in San Francisco . A native San Franciscan, she was a major supporter of our costume collection —gifting approximately 125 couture ensembles and over 75 Yves Saint Laurent works to our collection—including an iconic 1968 safari suit. Last summer, we mounted the exhibition Nan Kempner: American Chic, which had originated at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts’ Costume Institute. For the San Francisco venue, I kept true to Harold Koda’s original concept but customized it with objects from the collections of both the Met and the Fine Arts Museums. In doing so, I was able to contrast early YSL pieces from our collection with his later works to create a narrative that traced their 40-year relationship—observing her maturing as a women and Saint Laurent ’s evolution as a designer.

4. The last exhibit dedicated to Saint Laurent in the U.S. opened in 1983 at New York 's Metropolitan Museum of Art and was organized by Diana Vreeland (Yves Saint Laurent: 25 Years of Design). Alicia Drake in The Beautiful Fall (Bloomsbury 2006) notes that the period following that retrospective marked the beginning of the end of his most creative years (Chapter 18). Did you personally get this sense after reviewing his entire body of work?

The 1983 Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Met is legendary. It was the first exhibition to be dedicated to a living designer and in many ways it has set the course of costume exhibitions at museums for the last twenty-five years. We were careful to recognize the 1983 exhibition while not duplicating it. As his first full-career retrospective, we were in a unique position to examine his entire oeuvre in order to uncover his creative approach. As a designer, Yves Saint Laurent was constantly reworking, reinterpreting, and perfecting several core principles of dress. We strove to reveal these tendencies by organizing the exhibition thematically not chronologically. For example, examples from the groundbreaking 1965 Mondrian shift dresses are shown alongside the critically acclaimed Spring-Summer 1988 collection that paid homage to such artists as Braque and Van Gogh.

5. Pierre Berge has a reputation for being a bit difficult to work with and for keeping a very tight control on the brand's (and the designer's) image. Were there any restraints or conditions imposed on the team of curators in terms of access to the archives or the composition of the themes or presentation of the exhibit?

We had the full support of Pierre Berge from the onset of this project. He graciously opened the entire archives of the Fondation—granting us full access not only to the entire collection of garments, sketches and archival video, but also making his entire staff available to us. The passion, dedication, and intelligence of the entire staff at the Fondation is remarkable. Pierre Berge gave us full creative freedom, allowing us to examine Yves Saint Laurent’s career from a new viewpoint. He asked for a final review of the exhibition plan and will join us in October to open the show.

6. The project also involved the contribution of esteemed French fashion historian Florence Muller. Besides writing the exhibition catalogue, did she help shape the themes of the exhibit or the selection of the pieces that make up the exhibit?

Working with Florence Muller has been an absolute joy. As lead curator on the project, she presented the original concept for the exhibition that Diane Charbonneau, curator at Montreal Museum of Art, the staff at the Fondation, and I then worked together to develop. The exhibition checklist was also a collaborative process with each of us contributing.

7. Saint Laurent 's body of work has had a significant and lasting impact on the world of fashion. In your opinion, what would you say would be his most important contribution(s) to the industry?

As you have mentioned, Yves Saint Laurent has contributed greatly to the world of fashion. I believe his most enduring legacy is the pairing of masculine and feminine fashion to create a new modern wardrobe. This revolutionary work in the late 1960s and early 1970s is important not just to the history of dress but socially and culturally. In fact, the adaptation of the menswear into stylish women’s dress is perhaps one of the most long-lasting outcomes of the Feminist Movement. As Saint Laurent has explained, “I wanted to serve women, their bodies, their attitudes and gestures and to support their struggle for liberation over the past century.” Forty years later Yves Saint Laurent’s original design concepts are still relevant and stylish. Other major contributions would include the introduction of bohemian chic with the Russian Collection, the fusion of art and fashion, transparent fabrics, and of course, the development of a ready-to-wear line and boutique.

8. Do you have a favorite Saint Laurent dress or look?

The 1967 African collection; I am also a huge fan of African art and culture.

The Luxe Chronicles would like to thank the exhibit's curator, Jill D'Alessandro for graciously submitting to this Q&A and Jill Lynch for helping to organize it. The retrospective will open at San Francisco's de Young Museum on November 1, 2008 and will run until March 1, 2009. It will be the only U.S. venue. You don't want to miss this!


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Prepare yourself. I found the exhibit almost overwhelming. I also found it really, really hard not to reach out and touch some of the garments. Please give my regards to Jill Lynch. Enjoy!



I will be there on October 30th for the press preview! I'm actually bringing my Mom this time since she worships at the the church of YSL...

I've been looking forward to this all year!

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The Luxe Chronicles is a collection of interviews, profiles and musings on various aspects of the luxury industry and occasionally, a rant on our celebrity obsessed culture and the dumbing down of our collective sense of style and esthetic.

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