Marie-Dominique Lelièvre’s biography of Yves Saint Laurent is full of unexpected, sometimes scandalous, often unverifiable allegations. The one which surprised me most doesn’t concern Saint Laurent but rather Gabrielle Chanel. In 12 words, hidden on page 197 of the paperback, Lelièvre explains that Mademoiselle owed her “tremendous energy” to coke:
La coke est le secret de la stupéfiante énergie de Coco Chanel qui, à soixante-seize ans, gigotait comme un ouistiti sous amphétamines
Coke was the secret behind Coco Chanel’s tremendous energy. Aged 76, she was still wriggling like a marmoset on speed
Lelièvre, Marie-Dominique Saint Laurent Mauvais Garçon (Editions Flammarion, 2010), p. 197; Translation my own
In the end-of-book notes, Lelièvre quotes a 1959 video during which the designer does indeed fidget a lot. And that’s it. To justify this very serious allegation on Chanel, Lelièvre doesn’t use any contemporary account. This line is merely dropped in to show that Saint Laurent wasn’t the first designer addicted to cocaine.
Is it true? Saint Laurent is widely documented as having suffered from drug addiction during periods of his life. I can’t remember, however, reading anything about Chanel’s coke habit in Paul Morand, Edmonde Charles-Roux or Justine Picardie. Voluntary oversight by biographers enamored with their subject or incredible talent from the house of Chanel to hide one of their founder’s ugly traits? If you try Googling Chanel and Coke, most hits are about Lagerfeld designing for Coca Cola.
Galliano, McQueen and co weren’t the first victims of the quickening pace of fashion. If Marie-Dominique Lelièvre is to believe, the very man who launched prêt-à-porter and the infernal four-collections-a-year-minimum rythm, Yves Saint Laurent himself, was its first victim:
“Up until the„ we’d lead a carefree life. After work, we met up to go to the cinema, the had dinner and, post-dinner, we went to clubs to see transvestites shows. Going to bed late was of no consequence. What eventually spoilt everything was prêt-à-porter. It was too much for Yves, all those collections. He was a victim of the Judy Garland syndrome”, says his [Yves Saint Laurent’s] friend Philippe Collin.
“Instead of making him happier, prêt-à-porter killed him”, confirms Anne-Marie Munoz.
[…] To stay on top, Yves, too, took too much speed. And therefore sedatives to fall asleep.
Lelièvre, Marie-Dominique Saint Laurent Mauvais Garçon (Editions Flammarion, 2010), pp. 164-165; Translation my own
Beyond the heartbreak, the shock, the disbelief and the anger, what marked me most in the Galliano controversy was how often articles casually mentioned, almost as an after-thought, the importance of Jews in the fashion business.
In Outliers, The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell gives an historical explanation to the role Jews have been playing in fashion. His analysis focuses on how Jews in America quickly became key to the fashion business because they were the only immigrants with the required skills. It is quite easy to extrapolate from his explanation to better understand the situation in Europe too.
The Irish and the Italians were peasants, tenant farmers from the impoverished countryside of Europe. Not so the Jews. For centuries in Europe, they had been forbidden to own land, so they had clustered in cities and towns, taking up urban trades and professions. […] Overwhelmingly, their experience lay in the clothing trade.
Through the example of Louis Borgenicht a Polish immigrant who had the genius idea to start making and selling aprons, and who was lucky enough to have a wife who knew how to sew, Gladwell shows that the creation of the garment district is intimately linked with Jewish immigration in the 19th century.
“There is no doubt that those Jewish immigrant arrived at the perfect time, with the perfect skills,” says the sociologist Stephen Steinberg. “To exploit that opportunity, you had to have certain virtues, and those immigrants worked hard. They sacrificed. They scrimped and saved and invested wisely. […] the garment industry in those years was growing by leaps and bounds. The economy was desperate for the skills that they possessed.”
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers the Story of Success (London, 2009) pp.139-151
It’s quite easy to imagine that, like Chanel, the biopics will come next. His life, in Benaïm’s definitive biography Yves Saint Laurent Biographie, reads like a movie scenario between rehab, fashion spats and lovers.
Saint Laurent died over a year ago. None of those tributes will have any true meaning, besides making money, if his name is nothing more than a footnote of fashion history in 50 years’ time.
1) Yves Saint Laurent rétrospective
The exhibition is showing until August 29th, with tickets selling out every day. With 300 or so pieces on show, it gives an excellent overview of his work from his Dior days to his last Haute Couture collection in 2002. Garments are cross-organised by theme and chronological order, with a Cannes steps-like room at the end, allowing the visitor to understand both his inspiration and his style evolution. It ends on a pessimistic note, showing that Haute Couture doesn’t have a reason to exist anymore since places to wear it are few.
Most iconic Saint Laurent garments are on display, from a room dedicated to the Smoking to a row of Sahariennes. I was quite disappointed not to see the bikini-wedding dress Laeticia Casta wore at his spring/summer 1999 show. This was the dress which introduced Saint Laurent to the 12-year-old me. I still have the press cuttings from that particular défilé.
2) Requiem pour Yves Saint Laurent by Laurence Benaïm
Benaïm, editor and founder of Stiletto magazine, is probably one of the most authoritative Yves Saint Laurent writers. Her biography of the man, published in 1993 and updated in 2002 and 2010, is nothing short of a scholarly, though slightly biased, work. She writes extremely well, in a broken stream of consciousness way. Her Requiem is about the last years of Saint Laurent, after he left his fashion house. It shows how fashion evolved from a creative-centred world to one dictated by business and marketing. The book is quite emotional, underlying how out-of-place Saint Laurent would have been if he were still creating nowadays. Benaïm doesn’t try to distance herself from her subject - she knew him and doesn’t pretend otherwise. Her expertise on the fashion sphere and emotional attachment to Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, whom she’s met many times, make her book all the more powerful and sad.
3) Yves Saint Laurent Pierre Bergé L’amour Fou
I haven’t seen it, and I doubt it will be out in the UK before some time, but I expect a documentary in the line of Valentino: The Last Emperor or Loïc Prigent’s work. Judging by the trailer, Pierre Thoretton has put together archival footage and contemporary interviews to tell the story of the Bergé-Saint Laurent professional and private partnership.
September, its shortening days, cold breeze, overcrowded public transports and wardrobe dilemmas. It’s not summer anymore, but winter isn’t there yet. We still have fresh memories of the most recent holidays, barely softening the fact that the next ones are months away.
September, “the January of fashion”, with its phone-book-size magazines, month-long waltz of catwalks is a good fashion month. Two books discussing the lives of two pivotal fashion personalities are to be published half-way through the month.
Isabella Blow, by her former assistant Martina Rink with a foreword by Philip Treacy, looks like a coffee-table book. Although I haven’t had a chance to see it yet (it is out on September 13th), I trust publishers Thames & Hudson to only get the best of the best on their catalogue. From their press release, the book looks like a collection of memories rather than a narrative:
Martina Rink has brought together all those who were moved, influenced, discovered, and inspired by Isabella, in a volume that celebrates not only her life but also her outrageous personality, which left an indelible mark on all who met her. Texts and personal letters written exclusively for this book have been collected from legendary names in the fashion world, from Mario Testino and Manolo Blahnik to Hussein Chalayan and Anna Wintour. There are photographs by some of fashion’s greatest photographers, including Rankin, Donald McPherson, and Richard Burbridge, and illustrations by Hilary Knight and Paul Smith, in a homage to Isabella that celebrates her astonishing life.
Despite not owing a single magazine in which Blow’s work is featured, I admire the instinct she demonstrated in discovering people like Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan. Pictures of her (and of the Queen) convinced me that women in the 21st century should still wear hats, and I indirectly owe her my collection of headgear, all the feathery, felt and velvet numbers neatly piled up next to my shoes. I hope the book will convince me to finally wear them.
I haven’t read Justine Picardie’s Coco Chanel (out on September 16th) either but, again, I trust the author to write of very good biography of Mademoiselle.
Chanel has been written about a lot more than Blow. Coming up with a new, interesting angle on her life is probably difficult. Is a new biography life really necessary? Can Picardie do better than Edmonde Charles-Roux? Picardie’s books are generally well-researched, and I hope she got access to new material.
Picardie’s fashion writing has been on my radar for a while now. I think she’s one of Harper’s Bazaar best writers. From Daphne to My Mother’s Wedding Dress, I have found her books easy to get into and more importantly, hard to put down.
Ruth was already feeling left behind, when I put on my gingham uniform in the morning. Sometimes she dressed herself in it, and I had to persuade her out of it, though at weekends and holidays, she insisted she be allowed to keep the uniform on. “It’s not even a very nice dress,” I told her, trying not to get crossed.
“It is,” she said. “It’s a lovely dress. I want it, it’s mine.”
“It’s not yours,” I said, but eventually, it was, and another one exactly like it, when she joined me at the junior school.
My sister did not eat her lunch that day, or the next, kept her mouth shut for a week , until the headmaster, a kindly man named Mr Appleton, called me into his study. “Is there anything wrong at home?” he said. “Anything the school should know about?”
“No,” I said, smoothing the crease out of my cotton dress examining the squared lines of gingham, a if it were a cryptic code that might be broken after sufficient time.
Years later, when I was the same age my parents had been in that uncertain time, and suddenly feeling my own balance to be precarious, I went shopping, and without thinking bought myself a short blue cotton gingham dress. I wore it throughout a dangerous summer, and then gave it away. I did not want patterns to repeat themselves; feared I was somehow tempting fate.
Picardie’s book is very good at describing the passage of clothes through garments, at weaving together memories and clothes, the meaning of outfits and the meaning of life, the pattern of a dress and the recurrent patterns in life.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if Christopher Kane was in charge of designing school uniforms in the fashion of the outfit in the picture above? Of course, you would be unlikely to find it for £3.75 at Tesco…