Monsieur St Laurent and his Muses
Yves St Laurent was famous for his use of color, his extravagant and artful collections and his love of women. While he was inspired by his close friends Loulou de la Falaise, Catherine Deneuve, Betty Catroux and Paloma Picasso, the models he chose to work with on a day-to-day basis and for his runway shows were an integral part in building his collections. These girls had personality, silhouette, elegance and unlike the hordes of indistinguishable waifs that are trotting and tripping down the runways today, they inspired awe.
5, Avenue Marceau in Paris was the legendary address of the Haute Couture house of Yves St Laurent. A beautiful five story limestone building, it housed all the various ateliers needed to produce an entirely handmade collection – from suits and ballgowns to hats and shoes.
In the early 80’s the house was at the height of it’s splendor and success. On my first day as an assistant to the revered makeup artist José-Luis I walked through those doors as if I were entering the Vatican. There was plenty to feel intimidated about: the sumptuous décor, the formal staff, and the unspoken codes dictated by hierarchy and étiquette.
The “cabine” was a rather large mirrored room were the house models in their white fitted lab coats would lounge around while being prepared by hair-and-makeup people. Monsieur St Laurent worked on the collections from his studio on the third floor and when he needed to fit a piece on a real body he would send for one of the models.
In addition to design fittings, there was always something going on at Avenue Marceau: a show for a private client, editorial shoots, sittings with great illustrators such as Joe Eula and Antonio Lopez, a TV reportage, preparations for the runway shows… The girls always had to be ready and as far as I was concerned, I was getting the best education in fashion and makeup one could dream of. I was lucky to become one of the makeup assistants who was requested for the cabine literally every day for the next few years.
The Big Show: Diversity a la YSL
The group of fitting models was ethnically varied and they rotated on an “as needed” basis. As the show date would approach more girls were added, making the group even more diverse. Throughout the years I learned to recognize certain “types” that Monsieur St Laurent would gravitate to. I named them: statuesque African – European aristocrat – Asian royalty – Blonde Hitchcock-heroine type – Indian maharani – South-American wife of a president – British redhead – American heiress – Middle eastern princess.
Since Haute-Couture was an exclusive client-based business, it is understandable that YSL sought inspiration in models who reminded him of his individual clients.
The day of the show our backstage area was like a United Nations of YSL. The glamazons of the day were the Ethiopian sisters Hedia and Amalia, Guinean Katoucha, the dynamic Mounia from Martinique, mysterious Sayoko from Japan, elegant Texan Diane DeWitt, Kirat from India, Anna Bayle from the Philippines, Brazilians Dalma and Betty Lago, Spanish Violetta Sanchez, Italian Alda Balestra, the indomitable red-head Tara Shannon… Even when runway models were eventually replaced by the famous editorial “supermodels” of the 90’s (Naomi, Linda, Claudia, Laetitia etc…) the casting remained very international.
Today, as the Couture Houses are dying a slow death, and designers have become corporate brands relying on fragrance and accessories to drive sales, “types” are not needed for design inspiration. As a result, the runway is as colorful and spicy as vanilla pudding. It seems we are now back to square one – models as bland, anonymous “coathangers” in the tradition that Charles Frederic Worth started 130 years ago because he didn’t want them to distract from the clothes! For YSL, the girls communicated the collection. No coathangers, please!
Yves St Laurent created some of the most celebrated collections in fashion history, collections that were not mere pieces of art but clothes that his clients could and would wear. I doubt he could have done it without his international muses who sparked excitement and inspiration, and brought his clothes to life.