A talk with the curators of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection Of Style

Words: Need Supply Co. Editorial
Images Care of: Angel Sarmiento

August 04 2017

“I wish I had invented blue jeans,” Yves Saint Laurent once said. “They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity—all I hope for in my clothes.” It’s hard to overstate the effect that the legendary designer had on fashion. He was instrumental in making pants on women not only an accepted but a sought-after look, he ushered in a new era of androgynous sex appeal, and he brought the street style of the youth into the world of couture and he brought his couture skills to the street.

Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style – a career-spanning exhibition on the designer’s work – is on view now at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. Pulled from the archives of the Pierre-Bergé-Saint Laurent Foundation, the show was curated by Florence Müller, the Denver Art Museum’s Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art, and Curator of Fashion as well as Chiyo Ishikawa, who is the Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the Seattle Art Mzuseum.

We spoke to both Müller and Ishikawa on how the original exhibition was designed, as well as the VMFA’s organizing curator, Barry Schifman, the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Decorative Arts, 1890 to the present, on what makes this Richmond iteration special.

"Of course, he’s great at creating beautiful evening gowns, but I like the purity of the style when you see that it’s all about the structure and the parts of the silhouette." - Florence Müller

How did this exhibition come about?

Florence Müller The main lender for the exhibition is the Pierre-Bergé-Saint Laurent Foundation, and this foundation is very unique in the fact that it was organized very early when there were not many museums about couture houses. Pierre Bergé was the first who had this idea of keeping his patrimony and for this reason the Foundation is a very rich archive. He has kept nearly everything, all the things from the catwalk, the dresses, the accessories, everything that was shown. But also all the drawings of Yves Saint Laurent, the sketches, the documents used in the studio and the workshop, and it’s really one of the main collections in the world about the history of a fashion house.

The exhibition was based on this very rich archive. I had also the chance, because the exhibition was organized for both Seattle and Richmond, to include many dresses that were never shown before, and also documents that were discovered or acquired by the Foundation very recently.

Why was the Foundation interested in showing all these pieces in the United States?

Florence Müller The Foundation is like a museum and it’s their goal to make the whole history of Yves Saint Laurent shown in the world; it’s really their main activity. Of course, to speak more to America – the American market was very important for Saint Laurent – Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé were able to open the house because a young American guy, a businessman, gave them the money to launch the house. His name was J. Mack Robinson and he gave the money to really settle down the house when the young Yves Saint Laurent, the young Pierre Bergé didn’t have the money to support it.

Secondly, for the business part, Pierre Bergé was really affected by the US and they were very active on this market. And there was a huge response from American customers; the enthusiasm was really huge [in the US] from the start of the house. There were very important American clients like Nan Kempner, a very famous socialite, she bought so many great creations from Yves Saint Laurent. And really, the support of elegant and beautiful Americans was huge.  

“You could easily do a really stunning Saint Laurent show that’s nothing but clothes, and that would be fantastic.” - Chiyo Ishikawa

How did you decide on what to include?

Florence Müller It’s a long process because Pierre Bergé has kept more than five thousand dresses, plus thousands and thousands of accessories, and of course the process is very long because I had to build several checklists, starting with a very big one, and then removing things in order to have what is presented in Richmond. It’s a long process because, as Bergé has decided to keep things from a very early time, the choice is enormous, and it’s very tempting to keep many things. But, at the end you have to have a more reasonable checklist in order to not lose people. The process is, at the end, to ask yourself for each dress, ‘Is it important?’ ‘Is it accurate to the theme of a story?’ ‘Is a silhouette strong enough to tell a story?’

Do you have a favorite piece from the collection?  

Florence Müller There is one thing from ’72 that I like very much. It’s a jumpsuit that is black and very simple and for me it gets to the heart of the genius of Yves Saint Laurent. Of course, he’s great at creating beautiful evening gowns, but I like the purity of the style when you see that it’s all about the structure and the parts of the silhouette. In this jumpsuit from the exhibition you have a zipper in the front part, which is a very long zipper going from the legs to the upper part and there’s a little, not a belt, but something that you can close on the waist and you have these very long legs—you need to wear platform shoes—which elongates the silhouette, and when you’re not very tall it’s really great! You look thin and tall. It’s really a garment that is very easy to wear, which is very Yves Saint Laurent: the fact that it’s comfortable, easy to wear, and the fact that it creates a very great silhouette.  

“There’s really a very strong relationship between the sewing side and the drawing side…” - Chiyo Ishikawa

What was your role in the process?

Chiyo Ishikawa Once we got the concept done, my role, primarily, was liaising between curator, designer, and also publisher. Florence and I edited the catalog. She wrote essays and the content was superb. I was really inserting questions that I knew our audience would have.

It’s interesting that the exhibition addresses the work and the people that it takes to realize these wonderful designs. That’s not an aspect of fashion history that’s talked about very often.  

Chiyo Ishikawa The thing about Saint Laurent is that he didn’t sew. He’d had some training, but really, what he did was draw. He conceptualized the pieces and then he drew them out and the members of his atelier had to know how to read his sketches. So, they had to understand things like ‘this stroke here, does that mean a dart or does that mean a gather?’ And ‘it looks like this one has pockets’ and that kind of thing. And then they would make it in muslin and show it to him and then they would make the corrections. That’s really how they started, was with this very briefly notated sketch. So, there’s really a very strong relationship between the sewing side and the drawing side and he loved his staff and they were with him for many, many years.  

What, in your opinion, makes this exhibition different than your average fashion exhibition?  

Chiyo Ishikawa Probably the number of archival documents. You could easily do a really stunning Saint Laurent show that’s nothing but clothes, and that would be fantastic, but really the thing that is unique about the archive of the Foundation is they saved pretty much everything from the time he started his own fashion house in 1962. And so, one of the things I love about it is it carries you through almost like a timeline, so in addition to all the sketches, there are photographs, there are magazine pages and articles, because they kept all of the press clippings. And so, you can see the Mondrian dress and say, ‘he really did this revolutionary thing in the 1960s,’ but when you see the fashion layout, when you see some of the press critiques, you really understand it as embedded in a chronological context.

What has the reception to the exhibition been like so far?

Barry Shifman Well, they’re thrilled by it. We have young people, middle aged, the whole range of people, so we’re attracting a diverse audience, which is always good. There’s a big fashion program at the Virginia Commonwealth University, so students come. And we’re getting visitors from out of state, from Washington DC and elsewhere. But it’s a great response because he’s a great artist.

“Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style” is on view now until August 27, 2017 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. 200 N. Boulevard, Richmond, Virginia.