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Peeking into designer Yves Saint Laurent's world

Sabrina Cooper
October 2, 2017

As two museums celebrating the career of Yves Saint Laurent open, DW explores the great couturier's rivalry with another larger-than-life icon of fashion, the German designer Karl Lagerfeld.

Yves Saint Laurent in Paris
Image: DR

The stereotype of fashion is that it's flighty. Trends may come and go and return again several years or decades later. But in the history of fashion, there are unforgettable figures who remain influential and their designs, eternal. And a huge swath of that past belongs to arguably one of the greatest couturiers who ever lived, Yves Saint Laurent.

One of the most legendary feuds in the history of fashion was between Saint Laurent and another larger-than-life icon, who still lives in the fashion capital today and designs for the legendary French fashion house of Chanel: Karl Lagerfeld.

The volatile relationship between Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent initially started out amicably, as they shared a similar trajectory. The two men were friends in the 1950s as the rising stars of the fashion world.

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Museum Yves Saint Laurent in Paris
Yves Saint Laurent at work in his Paris studioImage: DR

Their origins as Parisian outsiders

They both won the International Wool Secretariat Fashion Design Competition in 1954.

Saint Laurent – newly arrived from Oran, Algeria, where he spent his youth – won the first and third prizes for the dress category at only 18 years old.

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld in his Parisian studio in 1979
Designer Karl Lagerfeld in his Parisian studio in 1979Image: picture-alliance/R. Witschel

Lagerfeld, 21 years old at the time and from Hamburg, won the prize for the coat category. Their winning designs had been chosen from 6,000 anonymous sketches. From there, Lagerfeld's and Saint Laurent's careers flourished in the City of Light.

There were more obvious similarities: "Both were the only, cherished sons of prosperous, middle-class families. Their fathers were successful businessmen who provided for their families, aspiring wives and bourgeois lifestyles. Both boys were homosexual and aware of their sexual orientation from an early age. They loved to sketch and in particular they loved to sketch dresses. They were both boys from the provinces, dreaming of Paris," wrote fashion journalist Alicia Drake in "The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris."

Drake's book, published in 2006, famously explored the story of the rivalry between Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent. The volatile relationship between Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent initially started out amicably. As the rising stars of the fashion world, the two men were friends in the 1950s. 

Buchcover Jacques de Bascher Dandy de l'ombre von Marie Ottavi
Jacques de Bascher, "the shadow dandy" Image: Seguier

From friends to rivals

Beyond any professional competition, their personal feud developed because of another man: Jacques de Bascher, Lagerfeld's partner for 18 years until his death in 1989.

The "shadow dandy," as he's called in the 2017 biography written by French journalist Marie Ottavi, "Jacques de Bascher, dandy de l'ombre," had a brief relationship with Yves Saint Laurent. De Basher's involvement with both men resulted in dramatic conflict between the two fashion designers, and ultimately, this blew up into one of fashion's biggest feuds of the '70s.

During most of this decade, Saint Laurent was technically in a relationship with Pierre Bergé, but during that period, de Bascher and Saint Laurent also had an affair. When Bergé discovered these trysts, he blamed Lagerfeld as a catalyst for the decline of Saint Laurent, even though Saint Laurent' substance addictions were already uncontrollable.

"Of course I knew about the affair with Saint Laurent. I had been close friends with Yves for more than 20 years," Lagerfeld said in Ottavi's book, adding, "Pierre (Bergé) smashed that to bits. He said I engineered their liaison to destabilize the house of Saint Laurent."

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Yves Saint Laurent with partner Pierre Berge
After Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé broke up in 1976, they remained lifelong friends and business partnersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Two museums in tribute to YSL

Today, both designers' names fortunately remain more legendary than their feud.

While Lagerfeld continues to be an indefatigable designer, photographer and artist, Saint Laurent's legacy endures in the fashion designers today who have cited his direct and enormous influence on their work: Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren, to name a few.

As for Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent's personal and professional partner of many years, he played an instrumental role in establishing two new museums celebrating the career of Saint Laurent: One opens in Marrakesh on October 17, 2017, and another one in Paris on October 3, 2017 at 5 avenue Marceau, where Saint Laurent spent close to 30 years designing his collections from 1974 to 2002.

Pierre Berge
Co-founder of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion label, Pierre Bergé died on September 8, 2017Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Villalobos

However, Pierre Bergé will not be there to experience the opening of his monumental tributes. The former chief executive of YSL recently died, on September 8, at the age of 86.

"I have always said that one must turn memories into projects, and that is what we have done with this Foundation," Bergé said. "In 2017, a new chapter begins with the opening of two Yves Saint Laurent museums, in Paris and Marrakesh. It is the latest twist in a journey that began long ago, when we had no idea how destiny would smile on us."

Indeed, Saint Laurent led a charmed life, gifted early on with the talent of design. For many years before his retirement, he shared a parallel stage (and runway) with Lagerfeld. These chapters of history are over, yet they stay relevant and fresh in the minds and imagination of their fans today.