The son of an insurance company manager, Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent left home at the age of 17 to work for the French designer Christian Dior. He would go on to become one of the most celebrated designers in history.
Yves Henri-Donat Matthieu-Saint Laurent was born on 1 August 1935 in Oran, Algeria to Charles and Lucienne Saint Laurent. He had two younger sisters called Michelle and Brigette for whom he designed dresses in his early years. At the age of 18 years, he moved to Paris where he enrolled in the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture where his designs gained more attention. Saint Laurent was introduced to designer Christian Dior by Michel De Brunoff, the editor of French Vogue.
To start with, he was given mundane tasks to complete but after winning first prize in the International Wool Secretariat contest for his cocktail dress design in 1954, Yves Saint Laurent landed the job of Haute Couture designer when Dior died in 1957 at the age of 52. At the tender age of 21, he launched a spring collection for the fashion house and gained critical acclaim for his dresses as the head of the House of Dior.
In 1960, he was conscripted into the French Army. His spell in the service was short-lived however, and he was transferred into a French mental hospital suffering from stress, where he underwent psychiatric treatment, including electroshock therapy, for a nervous breakdown. He served in the military for just 20 days. In 1962, in the wake of his nervous breakdown, Saint Laurent was released from Dior and started his own label, YSL, financed by his companion, Pierre Bergé. The Rive Gauche boutiques for women were established in 1966, and menswear followed in the 1970s. He was the first designer to use ethnic minorities as models on the runway.
He was also known during this period as one of 'Paris' jet-set' due to always being seen in French and US night clubs. He was a heavy drinker and frequent user of cocaine during the 1960s and 1970s.
'YSL' is perhaps most famous for "Le Smoking" tuxedo jacket, see-through blouses, peasant blouses, bolero jackets, pantsuits and smocks. By feminising the basic shapes of the male wardrobe, YSL set new standards for world fashion. He not only adapted the male tuxedo for women, but also safari jackets, pea jackets and flying suits.
His 1971 radical '40s' collection shocked critics, as did the advertising campaign for the first YSL men’s fragrance, 'Pour Homme' which featured Yves himself posing nude. In 1977, YSL launched the very popular 'Opium' perfume. In 1983, he became the first living fashion designer to be given a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1993, the Saint Laurent fashion house was sold to the pharmaceuticals company, Sanofi, for approximately $600,000,000. YSL held a 300-model fashion extravaganza at the final match of the 1998 World Cup football tournament in the Stade de France, and the following year he was awarded a 'Lifetime Achievement’ award from The Council of Fashion Designers of America.
On his retirement, Saint Laurent became increasingly reclusive and spent much of his time at his house in Marrakech, Morocco. In 2007, he was made a Grand Officer de la Legion d'honneur by French President Nicholas Sarkozy.
Aged 71, he died from brain cancer in June 2008 on a rare trip back to his native Paris. President Sarkozy said in tribute, "Yves Saint Laurent was convinced that beauty was a necessary luxury for all men and all women." A few days before his death he married his long-term partner Berge in a civil ceremony. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered in the Majorelle Garden in Morocco, which he regularly visited and found to be inspiring.
A number of the designer's belongings were sold at auction the year after his death, including Egyptian sculptures and paintings by Picasso. He had collected these works with Berg who decided to sell them as 'it has lost the greatest part of its significance'. Some of the proceeds were donated towards creating a new foundation devoted to Aids research.