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End of an Era in European Fashion

January 24, 2002

The retirement of fashion guru Yves Saint Laurent brings an end to an era in French fashion. His retreat has led to a debate of the future of Haute Couture.

Saviour, revolutionary, provocateurImage: AP

"Saint Laurent has saved Paris!", newspaper sellers shouted when the Algerian-born 21-year-old designer unveiled his first collection of Christian Dior in 1957.

Now, the announcement that Saint Laurent, one of the world’s greatest couturiers, was to retire shocked both industry and clients alike.

He was not only regarded as the saviour of French fashion, he inspired clients, editors and rising generations of fashion designers with his combinations of wild imagination and commercial common sense.

His retirement has left a void in the world of leading fashion and has led to debate on the future of European Haute Couture.

A travel through time

Yves Saint Laurent set up shop in 1961, when he founded his own couture house with business partner Pierre Bergé.

In the collections that followed, Saint Laurent clothed women in exotic dress – beaded, embroided materials in flamboyant colours and styles – and in practical, wearable suits.

His collections resemble a travel through the world’s continents – couture inspired by and interwoven with African, Indian, Spanish and Russian elements.

Despite coming up with designs which were so intricate and extravagant they were almost beyond price, Saint Laurent was said to know just what women wanted to wear, producing timeless garments worn by stars such as Catherine Deneuve and Bianca Jagger - but which made their way to the ordinary woman’s wardrobe, too.

And Saint Laurent was famous for his tremendous colour sense. He always seemed to be able to mix bright colours such as yellow, turquoise and the brightest of pinks without making them clash.

The end of an era

Both Laurent’s famous woman smoking and his cherished transparent blouse belonged to a collection of 300 Laurent garments shown at the Centre Pompidou in Paris on Tuesday, which marked Saint Laurent’s retirement and the end of an era in French fashion.

Saint Laurent’s retreat from the world of leading fashion has caused yet another debate on the future of European Haute Couture, especially among the French, who regard fashion as a large part of the country’s culture.

12 fashion houses are on the lists of this season’s shows, half the number of those 15 years ago. Pierre Bergé, Laurent’s long-time companion, foresaw years ago that Haute Couture would see its downfall with Laurent’s retirement.

But others do not agree. According to Bernard Arnault, president of the luxury company LVMH, Haute Couture is the next thing to art, something which keeps on going despite the death or retreat of its makers.

The icing on the cake

If Haute Couture is the icing, then pret-a-porter is the cake – Haute Couture is said to give pret-a-porter designers the ideas for designs which are then turned into clothes wearable, and affordable for the man – or woman – on the street.

One of the last of the Haute Couture dinosaurs is the fashion house Chanel. But one of its flagships, Karl Lagerfeld, is approaching his own retirement – this year the year-old celebrates his 20th anniversary as designer for Chanel.

Difficult to face but a known, if not outspoken truth, Haute Couture is on the retreat.

And at a price of up to 1,5 million euro per Haute Couture show, the price is high for couture culture. Especially at a time, when luxury goods sales are dwindling.

Yet the September attacks that dampened the delight of shopping for luxury goods did little damage to Haute Couture designer’s imaginations. Weird and whacky designs by fashion guru John Galliano, inspired by Moscow’s famous circus cheerfully contrasted with Lagerfeld’s otherwise sombre, clear-cut models at the Paris shows on Tuesday.

Redefining fashion

Designer Emanuel Ungaro called Haute Couture one of the last freedoms in a world of conformity. Saint Laurent, who was criticized for not keeping up with changing trends over the last two decades, was a perfect example of this freedom in his redefinition of woman’s fashion, the clothing of women in men’s suits and the bold usage of striking, clashing colours.

However, the designs of Haute Couture’s uprising, successive fashion designers are already looking more demure, such as Frédéric Molenac, who steered clear of French ideas of sophistication and glamour in this year's shows, combining subdued colours with buckles, leather straps and survival accessoires.

The aftermath of September 11 or the end of French fashion glam? As an era in legendary French fashion comes to an end with the retirement of Yves Saint Laurent, couture is cooling down, too.