At first glance it may seem odd that nestled in the quaint County Durham countryside, there lives a showcase (temporarily) dedicated to one of the most revolutionary fashion designers of the 20th century. Yet the glorious Bowes Museum, an extravagant 19th Century French château created to house the greatest private collection of European fine arts in Northern England, is the perfect home to the artistry of the great Yves Saint Laurent.
Born in 1936, the young designer became Christian Dior’s assistant at the age of 18, succeeding him after his sudden death just three years later. Taking over the reins of the most famous fashion house in the world came with dauntingly high expectations, and Saint Laurent did not disappoint. His first collection – the ‘Trapeze’ line – departed from the strict corsetry of his predecessor’s designs, but was nevertheless met with international praise from critics. Inspired to open his own fashion house following a nervous breakdown in 1960, the house of Yves Saint Laurent (complete with the infamous monogram logo) opened in 1961 in partnership with Pierre Bergé.
Abandoning traditional Parisian couture in favour of more affordable ready-to-wear clothing, Saint Laurent was the rebel of the fashion world. Liberating and empowering women with his clothing was his core motive, and the designer was responsible for numerous iconic designs in the modern woman’s wardrobe including the peacoat, the safari jacket, and the jumpsuit. As an avid collector of contemporary art, Saint Laurent often paid homage to the art world in his designs; most notably with the ‘Tribute to Piet Mondrian’ collection in 1965.
So how, then, to embody such a rich history of design in one exhibition? Carefully transporting fifty of Saint Laurent’s greatest pieces across the English Channel from their home in Paris was a start. The exhibition, unsurprisingly, takes over most of the museum’s first floor, including the notorious Fashion & Textile Gallery. The entrance to the exhibition features a huge screen, playing footage from Saint Laurent’s retrospective (and final) fashion show in 2002, featuring the designer’s personal favourite pieces from his forty-year career. Billowing curtains of translucent black fabric hang from the ceiling, emblazoned with quotes and illustrations from the designer himself.
The setup of the first room is slightly odd. On one side is a collection of accessories (mostly headwear) along with videos of Saint Laurent and his work. On the other side is a series of display cabinets, each holding garments of different specified themes. Yet, only one garment in each of the five cabinets is a Yves Saint Laurent piece – the others seem to be on permanent display. Considering this is an exhibition on Yves Saint Laurent, merely adding his designs to the existing collection and themes in the Fashion & Textile Gallery makes for a somewhat underwhelming effect. The room also features a film focusing on the life and undeniable influence of Saint Laurent, accompanied by a timeline on the back wall, providing a necessary context to the exhibition.
The transformation of the Glass Cube brings the visitor into the working environment of Yves Saint Laurent; with sketches, muslin toiles, wonderfully detailed embroidery samples, components and patterns as well as mannequins recreating the designer’s atelier. Here the emphasis is on Saint Laurent’s unique dual skill in the techniques of dressmaking and tailoring. The exhibition should be applauded in its encompassing of the whole process through which Saint Laurent’s designs were created, instead of just focussing on the final result.
The real showstopper is the third room. Saint Laurent’s designs are grouped according to theme (haute couture; masculine/feminine; transparence; art; spectaculaire), and it is here that the impeccable talents of the designer are truly realised. His attention to detail, his devotion to the art of making women feel beautiful and confident, his position – to quote the exhibition – as “fashion’s first socially conscious designer”. Highlights include, a white silk jacket embroidered with sequins, beading, and edges adorned with golden leaves; a little-black-dress-meets-flamenco style monochrome gown with a train embroidered with tassels, sequins, and beaded netting; and (it would be impossible not to mention) that Mondrian shift dress whose brilliant simplicity inspired a whole generation of fashion. A spectacular end to the display, this room demonstrates the versatility and uncompromising audacity of Saint Laurent’s designs, which are unlike anything seen before him.
‘YSL: Style is External’ is a truly powerful exhibition and exploration of the life and works of Yves Saint Laurent. In just fifty pieces from his forty years as a designer, the exhibition manages to capture the essence of Saint Laurent’s work so finely that it takes on a sort of biographical edge. Indeed, this appears to be a widely held opinion: receiving such high demand, the exhibition at the Bowes Museum has been extended further. This really is a fashion opportunity not to be missed.