The studio of Yves Saint Laurent is a sanctuary. It is the sacred place where his glorifications of woman were ceremonially accomplished, the home of his idols, where he performed all the secret rites of the artist/artisan calling that was his one and only raison d’être. At once refuge and prison, ossuary and womb, it was that unique place where all the couturier’s creative powers converged. There, between dagger and poison, was the beating heart of Saint Laurent’s oeuvre.
To survive the paralyzing, crucifying torture of anxiety, the only solution for Saint Laurent was Marrakech and the oasis of serenity he created with Pierre Bergé. Perhaps, for this son of the Mediterranean, this Proustian nostalgic for all the skies of Oran, and for the tender, joyous heavens of early childhood, it may have offered a sort of kindly analytic cure that on each occasion allowed him to murder the past while keeping faith with his origins. The sun of Morocco seemed to him even more beautiful than the sun of Algeria. He soaked in the soothing luxuriance of trees and flowers. ‘In Marrakech, I rest my mind clear. I feel good. On every street corner one sees groups that are impressive in their intensity, their relief, evoking Delacroix’s sketches, and which are in fact simply the improvisation of life.’ Solitude, indolence, sensuality, contemplation in the pursuit of a certain truth. Only the ‘Opium’ of Marrakech could lead him to the limits of the world, of his world.
On ream after ream of white paper, sketch followed sketch, like the magic flow of the imagination in automatic-writing mode. ‘When I pick up a pencil, I don’t know what I am going to draw. I start with a woman’s face and suddenly the dress follows, the clothing resolves itself. It is creation in its pure state, without preparations, without vision. When the drawing is finished, I am very happy.’ Twice a year, in early June and early December, Yves Saint Laurent would thus fly out to Marrakech for a fortnight and return with a little case in rust-red leather, monstrously stuffed with sketches. As the obligatory prelude, the ritual of this quest for the Grail in Morocco is where both the myth and the history of each Saint Laurent haute couture collection was first written.
The couture house, with Pierre Bergé at its helm, was like a vast conspiracy where everyone was determined to ‘spare’ him. The password? ‘LOVE’. Between effervescence and silence, feverish activity and fraught meditation, wild laughter and mischievous gaiety, the studio now became the magic stage, the intimate theatre of a five-act play that might be titled ‘Couture and Sentiments.’ Its tall door was usually ajar, open to the noises of the House. Under the authority of the studio director, Anne-Marie Muñoz, and the poetic, energizing gaze of Loulou de La Falaise, the premières and premiers d’atelier (workroom heads), mannequins cabine, embroiderers and favoured suppliers joined and succeeded one another in keeping with a protocol faithfully inspired by the House of Dior.
The first act could be titled ‘The Revelation of the Drawings’. Since the return from Marrakech, they have been jealously hidden away in the studio chest. It falls to Anne-Marie Muñoz to summon the premiers d’atelier to this key rite. Emotions run high, impatience vying with curiosity, but all are certain that the paths along which they are about to be led are sure, that the new collection is already much more than a promise.
The precise moment of this second act—‘The Attribution of the Drawings’—may come immediately or be slightly delayed, but not too long: there are barely three weeks to go before the collection will be airborne. Wearing his white coat this time, the couturier waits, sitting at a worktable covered with dossiers of sketches, carefully organized into categories following the etiquette of haute couture: suits, evening dresses, day dresses, cocktail dresses, blouses, furs, etc.
Change a waistline. Soften a shoulder. Raise a collar. ‘You must choose what you prefer, Jean-Pierre.’ And so, choices are made. And if, in this orgy of drawn ideas, a look the couturier particularly liked seems to have been forgotten, he will gently insist, ‘Oh look, Jean-Pierre! Don’t you like that one?’ And, before going back up to his studio, Jean-Pierre adds the precious ensemble to the forty drawings already selected.
Then comes ‘The Day of the Toiles’ a more theatrical third act, ‘moving, decisive and hard, too, for that is when I try to discover the secret of the collection,’ wrote Saint Laurent. Its choreography is highly ritualized. Sketch in hand, each premier takes his or her turn to come down to the studio accompanied by the chosen mannequin cabine to ‘pose’, ‘play the cloth’. From his architect’s table, Monsieur Saint Laurent watches for her entrance in the mirror, and it is a success if he recognizes his drawing. If he cannot acknowledge his paternity, the model is rejected, albeit with endless amounts of respect and kindness. ‘Monsieur Saint Laurent does not like to upset his premières who do not like to displease him.’ ‘Each collection has its secret. I try to find a way of recapturing the spirit of the cloth, of keeping in fabric the naivety of a toile, its beauty, its magical character. So, a bit of time goes by. The fabrics arrive and everything falls into place.’
Fabric gets everywhere. Rolls stand like colourful totems against the tables and in the window bays, swatches hang over chair backs, the bookshelves are a rainbow-coloured cornucopia of samples and the carpet a patchwork of widths of material and hangers feverishly thrown down for inspection. The Fabric God is in his heaven, and his bespectacled high priest is leading the worship, dressed in his white-coat vestment, given a muted echo by the toile that the mannequin ‘poses’ like a dress. A handful of acolytes attend and, naturally, the two vestals, ‘she who knows, watches over and observes’, Anne-Marie Muñoz, and Loulou, the ‘lightness of crystal’,’ with her catalysing instinct. Unrolling and feeling the heft of a crêpe, wondering about a black, assessing the hand, the feel of a grain de poudre, the swish of seductive chiffons.
To perform, in the allotted time, this fifth act, that of the ‘Secret Births of the Designs’, the Flou, the Tailleur, and all the workshops, drunk on the knowledge that they are ‘the architects and masons of Monsieur Saint Laurent’s taste’, start working with their fabrics in order to initiate the metamorphosis of the toiles into clothing: to create the miracle. Working with chalk, tape measure, needle and pins, snipping with squeaking scissors, they must find the proportions, volumes and energy of the fabric. Here the millimetre is the unit of measurement and the couturier’s sketch the absolute template. The process is a dogged pursuit of perfection in an almost mute effervescence. Here, everything whispers and works in a confident and hushed solidarity, beyond words. The murmuring silence of the workshops is almost like that of ‘long-united lovers who no longer need to explain themselves to understand each other’.
In the great mirror of the studio, Amalia, a cardinal character in our play, moves hieratically forward in a narrow black skirt and a blouse in white organdy. Monsieur Saint Laurent watches. Silence. And the model, who does not yet know what this silence means, moves impassibly on her high heels, with the lofty grace of a goddess. In the language of the Maison, ‘She has the star’. The première and the two guardian angels, Anne-Marie and Loulou, are also studying the mirror, holding their breath. Now the oracle speaks: ‘It’s beautiful, all this white! It’s a divine blouse! But the skirt… a bit tighter at the bottom, I think.’ ‘More restricted?’ ‘Yes, that’s it. I can see it now.’ He smiles reassuringly and the première stands. ‘Now we’re going to finish and fine-tune a bit. It’ll be right tomorrow’.
‘I do not think,’ said Saint Laurent in one of his Saint Catherine’s day speeches, ‘I do not think that we are ever more fascinated, dazzled, astonished than when we are working in front of the big mirrors of the studio on a model and everything is transformed, takes flight in another way, ending in gaiety, admiration of this perfection. We do not say it, but you have won. And you forget how hard you have had to work in your workshops.’ ‘My children, my talents beyond talent, my tendernesses, my queens, my kings and my princesses,’ he also said to these men and women he loved like a family, and as the best workshop in the world.
̶ One can be original and still be perfect, Sprague. Look at Saint Laurent.
̶ The imperfection in his life outweighs the perfection in his art. So long as the net result is imperfection, the art lives.
̶ Rather curious, your theory! And besides, you haven’t defined perfection.
̶ It’s the idea of closure, completeness. Nature can afford to be perfect, because it’s constantly in a state of flux. There’s always an opening for the new. Man cannot, because civilization seeks fixity and permanence. So if you add closure into the mix, it’s a recipe for death. Perfection in art is deadly.
̶ A rather grandiose statement, don’t you think?
̶ No. Just compare Cabanel and Manet. The Birth of Venus is perfection; Olympia is imperfection. Manet’s painting is far more interesting.
Yves Saint Laurent
Models and Dogs