Yves Saint Laurent is, without a doubt, one of the 20th century’s greatest fashion designers. An art lover who was fascinated by androgyny, this French couturier would, throughout his life, upset the fashion codes of women. His best-known creations include not only the Mondrian dress but also the transparent top, the jumpsuit, and the first trouser suit. These iconic pieces fashioned the reputation of the artist whose career took off in the 1950s when he met businessman Pierre Bergé.

Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakech. Photo: pelagica.org Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakech. Photo: pelagica.org

Born in 1936 in Oran, Algeria, the young Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent was heavily influenced by the “cosmopolitan city of traders, a sparkling city with a patchwork of a thousand colours under the calm North African sun”, as he described it. This inclination towards openness and universalism underlined the career of the skinny young man with noble origins, who decided to move to Paris in the mid-1950s when he was only 17. Two years later, he joined the house of Dior where he became an assistant, and then the artistic director following the sudden death of its founder.

He wouldn’t stay for long. In 1961, the young man took the fashion world by surprise when he opened his own haute-couture house with the person who would become his life partner, businessman Pierre Bergé. In the ensuing years, all his creations would follow the same goal of empowering women. He launched ‘Y’, his first perfume, in 1962. He dressed the foremost French actresses of the time including Jeanne Moreau, Claudia Cardinale and Arletty. He opened his first prêt-à-porter boutique in Paris in 1966, the year when he designed his first tuxedo suit for women which earned him a prize from the American women’s magazine Harper’s Bazaar.

YSL poses with models. Photo: Pinterest YSL poses with models. Photo: Pinterest

In the 1970s, YSL was at the summit of his glory. He borrowed liberally from the male wardrobe to dress his female clients in France and overseas, each of whom revelled in his liberated and sexy style that sparked a few press scandals – like his 1971 spring-summer collection inspired by the retro 1940s style of women during France’s Occupation.

Both this decade and the next were opportunities for him to pay tribute, through his clothing, to the painters who inspired him: Van Gogh, Matisse, Velázquez and Picasso, to name just a few. Artistically, he left a sizeable legacy to the female wardrobe – this was despite his excessive reliance on drugs and alcohol, which didn’t do much good for anxiety tendencies.

The Yves Saint Laurent ‘Mondrian’ dress The Yves Saint Laurent ‘Mondrian’ dress

This was a period of his life when he found solace in imaginary voyages as well as real-life trips to Morocco, mainly Marrakech, where he stayed when working on his collections. At the start of the 1980s, he and Pierre Bergé even purchased the Marrakech villa formerly owned by painter Jacques Majorelle – a place overflowing with poetry, ponds and exotic plants, today open to the public.

In 1983, Yves Saint Laurent became the first fashion designer to be granted the honour of having a retrospective organised at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York during his lifetime. Other exhibitions would follow in countries all over the world, including France at Paris’ Musée des Arts de la Mode in 1986.

The Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech, Morocco. Photo: magazineantidot The Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech, Morocco. Photo: magazineantidot

In the 1990s he began to move away from public life, but nonetheless produced ‘Homages’, collections inspired by personalities such as Marilyn Monroe, Marcel Proust and Catherine Deneuve. Eight years later, on the occasion of the football World Cup hosted by France, he assembled 300 models on the lawns of the Stade de France – an important event that viewed by hundreds of millions of spectators worldwide, furthering his planetary renown. In 2002, he announced his retirement from fashion and the definitive closure of his haute-couture house – one of the world’s largest fashion companies – to focus on the activities of the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent.

The entrance to the Yves Saint Laurent Museum. Photo: Musée Yves Saint Laurent, © 2016 Studio KO, Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent The entrance to the Yves Saint Laurent Museum. Photo: Musée Yves Saint Laurent, © 2016 Studio KO, Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent

Before dying in 2008 at the age of 71, YSL makes Villa Majorelle in Marrakech his residence. Here a stele was erected in his memory, not far from the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, which collects thousands of drawings, clothing, accessories and objects that belonged to the great designer. Another part of his legacy is preserved at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, where the public can discover photos, video testimonies and around fifty emblematic models.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), ‘Cuckoos on a Blue and Pink Carpet’, 1911 Henri Matisse (1869-1954), ‘Cuckoos on a Blue and Pink Carpet’, 1911

All through his life, the French designer built up a fabulous art collection. The year following Yves Saint Laurent’s death, Pierre Bergé decided to sell everything at an auction organised by Christie’s under the nave of the Grand Palais in Paris. This “sale of the century” attracted 30,000 people and dispatched, worldwide, 733 art objects including paintings by Picasso and Mondrian, as well as some Ancient Egyptian sculptures. During the sale, Matisse’s Cuckoos on a Blue and Pink Carpet (1911) sold for 36 million euros (£32.2) while a sculpture by Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi, Madame L.R., fetched 26 million euros (£23.2 mil).

Discover all Yves Saint Laurent objects at auction on Barnebys