"My name will be written in fiery letters on the Champs-Élysées." This was Yves Saint Laurent’s wish on his ninth birthday. Just over a decade later he would be crowned one of the greatest figures in 20th century fashion. Known for revolutionising the modern woman’s wardrobe, the designer was so iconic his nickname was simply ‘The Saint’. Sure, we’re used to the celebrity designer now, but until YSL no fashion designer had found such levels of personal fame. A regular fixture in party pages, he was often pictured hanging out with Andy Warhol in Paris or partying with Loulou de la Falaise et al at Studio 54 in the 1970s. There is projected a dazzling, if two-dimensional, image of the designer’s life outside of the atelier.
Now, a once-banned documentary to be released after 20 years - Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections - shines the spotlight on the cost of this celebrity status. French director Olivier Meyrou was invited by Pierre Bergé - long-term companion and business partner of Yves Saint-Laurent - to film the pair and go behind the seams at one of the most renowned Parisian haute couture houses from 1999-2002.
Without giving too much away, it is unlike a lot of ‘glossy’ fashion documentaries you’ve probably seen in recent years. At times, it makes for uncomfortable viewing. Below, Olivier tells BURO. his story of Yves Saint Laurent: the man, the myth, the legend…
“I had a film in the Centre Pompidou and Pierre Bergé was in the audience. At the end of the film Pierre asked me if I wanted to do a movie about him and Yves Saint Laurent. Pierre really wanted the last chapter to be on film. I knew nothing about fashion. When I first met Yves Saint Laurent I was scared: It was not comfortable to be around him. It was tense because he was more than camera-shy - he was camera-allergic. [This documentary] is more a portrait of the person than the fashion house, it’s about the human aspect, which was very specific. The atelier was tiny: under one roof you had the workers, the seamstresses [and] below you had the studio of Yves Saint Laurent and the office of Pierre Bergé and then the salon for the customers. It was like France in miniature form. I was fascinated by that. When I entered the house [in the late 1990s] it was more like the early 20th century.”
“Part of his body was already in history, the myth in French history. But still, I could see the man at work. He was 70 years old, he was getting very exhausted, but he was still there. That’s why I chose the black and white colour [to film the scenes with Saint Laurent] to create that sense. He was an icon for 40 years before I met him. Everyone new Yves Saint Laurent – it was like meeting with Joan of Arc.”
“When he was young, he wanted his name on the Champs-Élysées. He made this pact with himself, he wanted to be famous. When I met with him, I could see the price he payed for that. It was extremely touching in the film when he said in one interview ‘I decided to be happy.’ The price [of fame] for him was the pressure, the tension, the drugs - he got partly destroyed with his goal in fact. But it was also a way of answering his childhood - probably being gay, being a bit feminine [and] very transgressive it must have been horrible for him [growing up]. To be famous was a recognition and part of a revenge on the world somehow. But the cost of being famous was extremely high to pay. But they [YSL and Pierre] were not scared about that - during the shooting for three years, no-one mentioned that I should not do that or should not film that because Yves Saint Laurent is fragile. They were completely at ease with the tragic aspect of their story – they were almost promoting it like an opera. Both of them loved opera. I have footage – it’s not in the film – where Pierre says ‘It’s like an opera, the ending tragic!’ Sometimes I try to think of the first night they spent together, after making love. In the morning you have [a] concrete conversation that’s going to be very important for the rest of the story. I’m sure that day he said to Yves Saint Laurent, ‘the entire world will know that you are a genius.’ I’m sure Yves Saint Laurent agreed.”
“When I met Yves, I felt I was meeting with a very discreet man, mostly in hiding. It must have been different when he was 30 years old. The film is just one time: three years at the end of his story. But I think you could do 50 different movies [of him] and it would be different. I will be very happy that people can meet with the man because he was flesh and blood. Not only the man, but the people working around him because the team was important. When I arrived in the house, the workers were supporting Yves Saint Laurent. None of them wanted the story to end. It was a fight to go further - one more year, one more collection. It was the fight to go as far as possible.”
Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections is in select UK Cinemas and available to stream on Mubi from October 30th
images I getty, shutterstock