At the YSL Museum in Paris, among 3.000 garments, perfume is part of the exhibition
Rien n’est plus beau qu’un corps nu, wrote Saint Laurent in his notebooks: the year was 1971, the idea was of bare skin. Jean Loup Sieff took the photograph: Yves wearing only his glasses for the launch of the first men’s fragrance, YSL pour Homme. A nude photograph in black and white that caused a scandal. It was the first time a man had been photographed for an advertising campaign for male perfume. Saint Laurent was the first designer to pose in the nude for his own brand. «Yves did not detest scandal, especially as far as perfumes were concerned Pierre Bergé is said to have commented.»
The desexualization of nudity, provocation: ‘This eau de toilette has been mine for the last three years. Now it can be yours’, claimed the advert. It can be considered the first lifestyle communication. «Saint Laurent wanted his perfume to be something that people desired. The photo did not suggest a macho image or virile competition, like the advertising campaigns for other perfumes at the time, it was simply a fragrance for men who wanted to smell good,» underlined Jay Harris in the British magazine Cereal, 2014. At the time, many newspapers refused to publish the photo (Christie’s sold the original print at auction for £18,750 in 2010) but the debate on the campaign between its fans and detractors earned the maison more than a hundred articles around the world.
In the Seventies, Saint Laurent was the first to open a pret-à-porter boutique on the Rive Gauche, the bohemian bank of the Seine. The idea worked: the label became the leader in the export of luxury ready-to-wear clothes for women. Marguerite Duras wrote: «Saint Laurent women have abandoned their harems, castles and even suburbia, they are on the streets, on the métro, at Prisunic, at the Stock Exchange.» It was the same time as the launch of Rive Gauche: the perfume of middle-class sensuality. Designed for the women who flocked to his boutique, it was the first fragrance in history that came in a tin, chosen to underscore the metallic notes of the aldehydes, the then fashionable manmade molecules, of its floral composition with a poudré base. In 1975, power-seeking women opted for the masculine notes of Eau Sauvage by Dior and Saint Laurent launched his unisex per- fume, Eau Libre, an intense cologne marked by the freshness of green and citrus notes. The 1977 launch of Opium, which coincided with the Les Chinoises collection, led to even fiercer criticism and debate. Opium was actually boycotted in several countries because it shared its name with a drug. In the advertising campaign by Helmut Newton, Jerry Hall was seen reclining on a bed of cushions in what could easily pass for an opium den (the set was actually the oriental room at the home of Saint Laurent-Bergé). The design of the bottle was based on the Japanese inro, the wooden container where the samurai kept their medicines and opium: it was designed by Pierre Dinand who originally intended it for Kenzo, but then Kenzo rejected it.
The more the press criticized Yves Saint Laurent’s desire to be provocative, the greater the craze for Opium grew: testers were stolen, advertising posters were torn down and hung on the walls of teenage bedrooms, and perfumeries sold out in a matter of hours. In the first month since its launch in Europe, Opium sold more than Chanel N°5 did in a year; the website of the Musée YSL in Paris reports that in the first twelve months, sales touched thirty million US dollars. Ten years later, it was still at the top of the rankings of French perfumes in America. Opium was an Orientalist fantasy. Yves, who didn’t travel much, thought more of Baudelaire than of backroads in Shanghai. An eau de parfum with amber and patchouli at a time that was dominated by the floral jus and aldehydes of the mainstream scents by leading American cosmetic manufacturers.
We know all about the story, but we like to think of it as a poem: Yves Saint Laurent was born in Orano in Algeria in 1936; he came to Paris in 1954, and a year later was already Christian Dior’s assistant. When the maestro passed away, Saint Laurent became the artistic director of the atelier. At the age of twenty one, Saint Laurent was the youngest couturier in the world. His first collection for Dior, the Trapèze collection, marked a change in haute couture, which opened up to inspirations from contemporary life and set the female body free. He was fired while recovering at a military hospital during the French-Algerian conflict, but took Dior to court and won. He used the compensation of 680.000 francs to set up his own maison with Pierre Bergé. At the atelier in rue Spontini on January 19th 1962, his first collection was a runway revolution. Yves not only observed the changes in society, he was part of them, a driving force. Haute couture became a co-conspirator of the turmoil at the time and was a cause of it to a certain extent. «His work goes beyond that of a couturier: Yves has abandoned the boundaries of aesthetics and entered the social sphere,”» explained Bergé in Saint Laurent Rive Gauche: Fashion Revolution. It was the Sixties, Saint Laurent was work- ing on what modern sociologists call gender fluidity, the male/female duality, and took garments that were associated primarily with virility and lent them a more feminine and empowering dimension. His runways were full of reefer jackets and trouser suits, safari jackets and jumpsuits, trench coats and black blousons. He anticipated the craving for sexual freedom that was in the air in 1966 and interpreted it with his Nude Look shirt, a blouse, a cloud of sheer black cigaline that barely covered the breasts on show underneath. In the 1970s it was the turn of a metropolitan ethnic look, before it became trendy, with collections inspired by darkest Africa, Morocco, Russian folklore, Imperial China, or India. Saint Laurent gave us the first tuxedo for women, a new idea using a fabric that until then had been reserved for men only, i.e. black grain de poudre.
Saint Laurent’s designs have now inspired the Vestiaire des Parfums collection of haute par- fumerie: as well as the obvious Tuxedo there is Caban, Blouse, Saharienne, and so on, with styles and fabrics reflecting YSL fashion. The sillage-synesthesia conjure up kaftans and trench coats. The glossy shine of vinyl and the opulent texture of velvet hint at the corners of Rive Gauche and the addresses of genius loci: 24 rue de l’Univer- sité, 37 rue de Bellechasse, 6 place Saint Sulpice. Le Vestiaire des Parfums – perfumes that are obviously no gender – let’s say that again, no gender, almost an obsession for Yves, almost his nemesis and his legacy today. That masculine design cut for women, in grain de poudre, was launched in 1966. This was a time when it was still quite shocking to see women wearing trousers instead of an evening gown – so much so that there were some hotels and restaurants that refused them entrance. ‘Le Smoking’ went on to become a classic, that is part of every collection even today. Yves continued to adore his original version: the last garment made at the atelier on avenue Marceau before it closed in 2002 was a replica, ordered by Sir Paul Smith for his wife.
A new perfume has just been added to the Vestiaire des Parfums collection – you guessed it: Grain de Poudre, that grainy, menswear fabric, with a shiny matt texture and the contrast between the sweetness of violets and the energy of sage, in a sartorial construction that reflects the ambivalence of the sense through the ambiguity of the fabric. «Scent is the brother of breath», said Yves Saint Laurent. In the rooms at the Musée YSL in Paris, amongst almost three thousand garments, accessories, drawings, fabric samples, there is not a single perfume.