From the top floor of the Yves Saint Laurent museum...
…the view is on the bland court interieure; and yet, your heart beats a little faster. And not because you have climbed up the back staircase of the house of Yves Saint Laurent.
You have entered the sacrosanct area where, until 2002, seamstresses, embroiderers, drapers, knitters and other petites mains, bustled about to give life to the garments coming out of Yves Saint Laurent’s imagination. It is now the reserves of the museum, where conservation and restauration of the thousands of archived items takes place. The entire life of the maison YSL is here: garments, jewelry, accessories, drawings, press cuttings, magazines (34,703 objets to be precise)
It’s a soft autumn evening in Paris, and I am one of a few gathered around Aurelie Samuel (Heritage Curator and Director of Collections), in what used to be the atelier tailleur of the maison Yves Saint Laurent. Museum curators are notorious for being fiercely protective of their collections and you can almost feel their pain when they let the lay person enter their domaine - so I was very aware of the incredible priviledge we were granted.
The room is small, with white walls and industrial lighting (of particular importance I will learn later on). The strict instructions that came with the invitation to attend the lecture, are being reiterated in no uncertain terms by Ms Samuel: DO NOT TOUCH the luxurious garments that surround you, do not even brush against them as you move about the room. Long hair to be tied back. After light, handling and touching are the most damaging to textiles.
Long before Monsieur Saint Laurent (as he is only referred to by Ms Samuel) was famous, Pierre Berge believed that he was going to be the most important haute couture designer of the century. And thus, with vision and possibly a touch of arrogance (although he was proven right), he mandated in 1964 that every collection’s prototype be kept for a future museum. This represented a considerable expense: thousands of work hours and vast yardage of fabric are invested in the making of a prototype worn once only: during the runway presentation. Prototypes were made to the model’s measurements just as the sold garment was for the haute couture clients.
The reveal of the first Mondrian dress sent an unexpected frisson of delight down my spine: I was in presence of fashion history. One of the most iconic (and technically difficult to construct) dress was right there in front of us (in fact we saw 3 variations of it). Waves of memories of my mother’s elegant silhouette rushed back to me as I was closing the circle between her and the hand that made her look so unattainably glamorous and beautiful.
The year of the Mondrian dress, YSL closed the runway with a knit and satin ribbons wedding dress inspired by Russia and the matryochka nesting dolls. The tubular, cocoon dress has just 3 apertures: 2 slits for the hands and an oval for the face. It is as puzzling lying flat as worn. It never sold but what extraordinary knitting craftsmanship - if you know the size of the kneedles used, please share in a comment below - I’d love to know.
From one iconic piece to the next, we then discover the Sunflowers jacket (it’s sister the Iris jacket is exhibited two floors down) - an hommage to Van Gogh. Ms Samuel shares that she will never allow it to be shown in public because the risk of damage is too high. With a weigh of 3kg for all the embroidery - it took 600 hours of work by the Maison Lesage’s experts to realise it - it is one of the most expensive garments ever made by haute couture.
A hush descends on the room as the wrapping is peeled back…
…and we all “experience” the warmth and luminosity of the Provencal sun and the vibrancy of the sunflowers yellow.
The spirit of Van Gogh was floating around us, and you could feel the symbiosis between Monsieur Saint Laurent, the anonymous embroiderer and the painter. And that, is art. Masterly craftsmanship that translates emotions into objets, that reflect back the emotions. A perfect circle.
A minuscule golden bolero, a sequined dress affectionately dubbed “la sardine” by Ms Samuel, and a grand military-style short jacket were also on display for us.
We admired the intricate (and almost invisible to the naked eye) work of the beaders through microscopes and thread-count magnifiers - hair must be tied back to avoid contact with the garments when using the tools.
Special cabinets are used to store the garments either hanging or lying flat.
Thank you Monsieur Berge for your vision and love for Yves Saint Laurent.
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