Rich­mond ex­hi­bi­tion reaf­firms the ge­nius of Yves Saint Lau­rent.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ROBIN GIVHAN robin.givhan@wash­

There are few de­sign­ers, alive or dead, who have had a greater in­flu­ence on fash­ion than Yves Saint Lau­rent. In the 1960s, he blurred gen­der lines by craft­ing pantsuits and tuxe­dos for women at a time when such no­tions were con­sid­ered rev­o­lu­tion­ary and sub­ver­sive. He pop­u­lar­ized the sa­fari jacket. He took in­spi­ra­tion from the street, the night­clubs and pop­u­lar cul­ture — in­ject­ing youth and a sub­ver­sive spon­tane­ity into fash­ion. And he helped set the in­dus­try on a more demo­cratic tra­jec­tory by open­ing his Rive Gauche bou­tique in Paris, which was de­voted to more ac­ces­si­ble ready-to-wear, while his col­leagues were fo­cused only on rar­efied and ex­pen­sive haute cou­ture.

Be­cause of Saint Lau­rent’s ac­com­plish­ments, there has been no short­age of films, books or ex­hi­bi­tions ex­am­in­ing life de­tails as var­ied as his pro­fes­sional be­gin­nings as an as­sis­tant to Chris­tian Dior and his ob­ses­sive de­vo­tion to his French bull­dog, Mou­jik. In­deed, in 1983, only 25 years into a ca­reer that lasted al­most 50, the de­signer was the sub­ject of a cel­e­brated ret­ro­spec­tive at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art. In 1998, Saint Lau­rent mounted a mas­sive fash­ion show at the Stade de France for the fi­nal of the World Cup soccer tour­na­ment in front of a tele­vi­sion au­di­ence es­ti­mated at more than 1 bil­lion.

What is left to be re­vealed? Who is left to in­form of his great­ness?

The Vir­ginia Mu­seum of Fine Arts is bet­ting there re­mains some­thing to say and peo­ple who are will­ing to lis­ten.

The ret­ro­spec­tive “Yves Saint Lau­rent: The Per­fec­tion of Style,” at the Rich­mond mu­seum through Aug. 27, moves briskly from the de­signer’s birth in Al­ge­ria in 1936 to his early suc­cess in a Paris de­sign com­pe­ti­tion, to his rise at Dior and the crit­i­cal ac­claim for his first col­lec­tion, in which he in­tro­duced Dior cus­tomers to the trapeze dress and its easy, swing­ing sil­hou­ette. The ex­hi­bi­tion zips along to the launch of Saint Lau­rent’s sig­na­ture brand with his busi­ness and life part­ner, Pierre Bergé. It high­lights his pro­fes­sional rev­e­la­tions, such as when he turned to a worka­day pea­coat as in­spi­ra­tion for a dress. And it cel­e­brates his per­sonal myth­mak­ing — his par­ty­ing through the night with friends such as model Betty Ca­troux and his pos­ing nude in ad­ver­tise­ments for his per­fume.

Be­cause this show was or­ga­nized by the Seat­tle Art Mu­seum in part­ner­ship with Paris’s Fon­da­tion Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Lau­rent, it ben­e­fits from an ar­chive that is ar­guably un­matched by any de­sign house. It also had the stature and con­nec­tions to draw from pri­vate col­lec­tions.

All the pro­fes­sional hits are here: a Mon­drian dress with its geo­met­ric blocks of color, the slick black trench coat worn by Cather­ine Deneuve in the film “Belle du Jour,” the early pantsuits. Glass cases prac­ti­cally burst with Saint Lau­rent’s cos­tume jew­elry. And in one long gallery, his late-ca­reer frocks form a rain­bow of satin and taffeta, in­clud­ing a par­tic­u­larly glo­ri­ous pump­kin-col­ored evening cloak — a style that made a gen­er­a­tion of so­cialites swoon.

There are a lot of beau­ti­ful clothes here, and some carry great ap­peal to con­tem­po­rary eyes. There are myr­iad op­por­tu­ni­ties for a vis­i­tor to mur­mur, “I’d wear that.” Or, “I own a jacket like that.”

For many, that visual plea­sure and self-con­grat­u­la­tory fa­mil­iar­ity will be enough. “The most pop­u­lar ex­hibits now are fash­ion and jew­elry,” says Barry Shif­man, the mu­seum’s cu­ra­tor of dec­o­ra­tive arts af­ter 1890. The VMFA hopes to at­tract 100,000 vis­i­tors to the Saint Lau­rent show, he says.

The new­found al­lure of fash­ion for mu­se­ums can be traced, in large mea­sure, to 2011’s record-break­ing “Alexan­der McQueen: Sav­age Beauty” at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art. That show was not only the mu­seum’s most suc­cess­ful fash­ion ex­hi­bi­tion to date, but it also ranked among the 10 most-vis­ited ex­hi­bi­tions in gen­eral — right up there with the Mona Lisa, Pi­casso and Jeff Koons. (The McQueen record was later shat­tered by “China Through the Look­ing Glass” in 2015.)

At their best, th­ese ex­hi­bi­tions con­nect fash­ion’s cre­ativ­ity, au­teur­ship and tech­nique to the broader world. The story of a gar­ment can push vis­i­tors to re­con­sider their own def­i­ni­tion of beauty and their as­sump­tions about gen­der. It can high­light the emo­tional ur­gency of self-cre­ation, the uni­ver­sal­ity of hu­man­ity and the power of the ex­cep­tional.

Count­less in­tel­lec­tual de­bates and vis­ceral urges can blos­som from some­thing as fa­mil­iar and re­lat­able as a dress or a coat.

But it’s often that very fa­mil­iar­ity that makes fash­ion ex­hi­bi­tions es­pe­cially chal­leng­ing and that can ren­der them ba­nal. It’s dif­fi­cult for most women to­day to imag­ine a time when wear­ing trousers was scan­dalous. The late New York so­cialite Nan Kemp­ner, whose own wardrobe was the sub­ject of an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Met, re­called be­ing stopped at the en­trance to a fancy New York restau­rant be­cause she was wear­ing pants. “I had to drop my pants and go in in a tu­nic, and this was the early ’60s,” she told The Wash­ing­ton Post.

For a de­signer at Saint Lau­rent’s lofty perch to cham­pion not just trousers, but also a tuxedo in lieu of an evening gown, was jaw drop­ping. That’s hard to ab­sorb now, when leg­gings count as pants.

“The Per­fec­tion of Style” does not en­gage the viewer in a con­ver­sa­tion about so­cial taboos or cul­tural bar­ri­ers. It men­tions Saint Lau­rent’s ground­break­ing use of black mod­els on the run­way but doesn’t con­nect that de­ci­sion to his work as a whole. Did that choice re­flect his af­fec­tion for North Africa, par­tic­u­larly Morocco, where he spent con­sid­er­able pri­vate time? Did it flow from his in­ter­est in modern art, in African art? Was it sim­ply a mat­ter of aes­thet­ics — his fa­vor­ing the con­trast of sun-drenched col­ors on darker skin?

A gallery ded­i­cated to “The Gen­ders” is home to a se­lec­tion of pantsuits, a tuxedo dress and evening pants. One of con­tem­po­rary fash­ion’s cur­rent ob­ses­sions is the gen­der line — blur­ring it, eras­ing it. Saint Lau­rent, who died at 71 in 2008, is quoted as hav­ing said that women should ac­cept men’s fem­i­nin­ity and that men should con­cede some of their viril­ity to women. It would be worth­while for this ex­hi­bi­tion to con­sider Saint Lau­rent’s role in to­day’s lively con­ver­sa­tion. And as to­day’s run­ways honor the quo­tid­ian, did Saint Lau­rent’s el­e­va­tion of pea­coats and sailor sweaters lead us to Vete­ments’s DHL T-shirt?

The ex­hi­bi­tion doesn’t pose ques­tions to be wres­tled with. It doesn’t re­quire you to think. And it doesn’t al­low Saint Lau­rent’s work to en­gage with the rest of the fash­ion world, let alone the cre­ative world. It sim­ply tells you that Saint Lau­rent, the man, was great. To make that case, there are ex­am­ples of the pa­per dolls he cre­ated in his youth. There are swatches of fab­ric and sketches that date to 1962, as well as press clip­pings, pho­to­graphs and video clips. In sav­ing ev­ery bit of ephemera from the be­gin­ning of their com­pany, the de­signer and Bergé were ei­ther ex­traor­di­nar­ily pre­scient or in­cred­i­bly ego­tis­ti­cal. Prob­a­bly a bit of both.

Saint Lau­rent’s stature as a de­signer is ev­i­dent. This ex­hi­bi­tion re­con­firms it. His con­tin­ued rel­e­vance, how­ever, is more elu­sive.



AT TOP: A ret­ro­spec­tive at a Rich­mond mu­seum in­cludes Yves Saint Lau­rent’s Mon­drian dress and other hits. ABOVE: He works with model Vic­toire Doutre­leau as he pre­pares his first col­lec­tion, in 1961.

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