The show, which features the first exhibit of Saint Laurent’s “Paper Doll Couture House,” will showcase 110 complete outfits by the fashion designer. It runs from Oct. 11 to Jan. 8.
As the newest major exhibit emerged from crates at Seattle Art Museum earlier this month, unpacked by gloved technicians, one worry reigned over all others: wrinkles.
This isn’t typically a problem for an art exhibit, but “Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style” (opening Tuesday, Oct. 11) is a display of beautiful, meticulously tailored clothing: 110 complete outfits, spanning more than 40 years. The legendary French designer’s long career began while he was still in his teens, as an assistant to Christian Dior in the mid-1950s. He would soon become, despite periods of fragile emotional and physical health, one of the most famous designers in the world. Among his many trademarks were the women’s formal tuxedo (a 1960s garment known as “Le Smoking”), the peacoat, the pantsuit, the safari jacket, playful garments inspired by art or pop culture (such as his famous Mondrian shift dress).
Though Saint Laurent closed his couture house in 2002 and died in 2008, his life and business partner Pierre Bergé wrote in the SAM exhibit catalog that “women — sometimes without even knowing it — continue to wear a little bit of Saint Laurent.”
‘Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style’
Oct. 11-Jan. 8, Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle, $14.95-$24.95 (206-625-8900 or seattleartmuseum.org)
Guest curator Florence Müller selected the garments from the vast archives of the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent in Paris and from other private collections. She said that a huge part of the designer’s appeal was his way of mixing elements: masculine/feminine, high-end/low end, “combinations of things that are not supposed to be worn together,” such as a military jacket over a dress. “The idea that the garment is part of your attitude, that you can play with it — that’s very Yves Saint Laurent.”
“The Perfection of Style” is SAM’s second major fashion exhibit — the first, “Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion,” was a hit in 2013. “That’s why we thought we could go forward,” said Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM deputy director of art and curator of European painting and sculpture, noting that “Future Beauty” brought in “new audiences that we hadn’t seen before.” More men than expected came to the show, as did multigenerational visitors — mothers, daughters and grandmothers coming together.
“One of the things that I observed,” she said, “is that you experience looking at clothing differently than you do looking at a painting on the wall. There’s an immediate personal identification that means that you kind of develop this emotional connection to the work, in a way that is a different mental and emotional process from looking at paintings, sculpture, photography. Because there is this relationship of it to your body.”
Saint Laurent, Ishikawa said, seemed a natural choice for SAM’s next fashion exhibit. With the help of the Fondation, the museum was given access to a remarkable archive: “[Saint Laurent] saved everything he made from 1962 when he started his own [fashion] house — all the sketches, all the collection boards, all the documentation that other couture houses would love to have. Chanel doesn’t have any of that. Nobody has the depth of material that the Fondation has.”
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Müller, who curated a retrospective of Saint Laurent’s career four years ago, said that the Seattle exhibit will focus not just on the clothing but on “the connection between his intimate life and his career.” SAM audiences will see photographs, fabric swatches, various documents, and a charming “Paper Doll Couture House” created by the 14- or 15-year-old Saint Laurent, “following what he was seeing in magazines belonging to his mother.” The latter has, Müller said, never been exhibited before. “It was kept by Mr. Bergé, in his private office, and it was rediscovered very recently.”
One section of the show will honor the many different workers who created the garments, “to give you an idea of life in the workshop,” Müller said. (The music of Maria Callas, which the designer listened to at work, will be playing.) Other areas will showcase Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear collection (another area of innovation for him; he was one of the first designers to popularize ready-to-wear as opposed to custom-made couture) and his connection to pop art.
But mostly, “The Perfection of Style” will be one garment after another, a creative journey through a fascinating career. Choosing the garments, said Müller, was a challenge: The Fondation has about 5,000 outfits in storage. Reaching the final choices required a lot of experimenting: first deciding on the exhibit’s structure, then trying multiple outfits on mannequins, seeing which groupings worked well together. “And then you have what is the most sad moment — you have to remove!” said Müller. Ultimately, the goal was to arrive at a selection of garments “that tell several stories.”
Once chosen, the garments had to take an overseas journey — in such a way that their pristine condition wasn’t altered. Giving the garments a quick press or steam upon arrival is a no-no: Heat is “terrible for conservation of the fabric,” Müller said. The clothing was packed flat in “gigantic crates,” with fabric forms stuffed inside to help the garments maintain their shape. It’s an arduous process. Müller noted that it can take an hour to properly pack one dress.
After arriving at SAM, the garments were unpacked by a team from the Fondation — with black-gloved hands — and meticulously placed on the exhibit mannequins. Earrings were attached, necklaces dangled, scarves elaborately draped. In a demonstration last week, two Fondation staffers worked together to dress a mannequin in an evening skirt and blouse from Saint Laurent’s famous 1976 Russian-inspired collection. They handled the clothing lightly but reverently — it took both of them to carry the skirt across a room — never letting the garments touch the floor.
Ishikawa, excited to see fashion at SAM again, said that Saint Laurent’s story, as told in the exhibit, is “very much a classic romantic artist’s — this incredible prodigy and early success, and then this incredibly steep ascent, personal issues, depression, kind of a withdrawal into himself. All of that is a really interesting artistic narrative, and it’s presented in terms of these incredible garments. You can see his personal issues and the things that are concerning him at the moment, coming through in the clothes.”