Today marks what would have been Yves Saint Laurent‘s 82nd birthday. The French designer, who tragically lost his battle with cancer 10 years ago in Paris, has left an indelible mark on fashion that won’t soon be forgotten. Here, in honor of Saint Laurent’s legacy, we round up five facts to know about the iconic couturier.
#1. He was born and raised in Algeria
Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent was born to Lucienne and Charles Mathieu-Saint-Laurent in 1936 in Oran, a port city in Algeria then under French rule. Though Algeria was on the brink of the violent War of Independence, the designer remembered the city as “a cosmopolitan place made up of merchants from everywhere and especially somewhere else… a city that sparkled in a multicolored patchwork under the calm North African sun.” He would eventually move to Paris at the age of 17, where he would enroll at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
#2. His first taste of fashion was designing dresses for paper dolls
Saint Laurent grew up in a Mediterranean villa alongside his older sisters, Michèle and Brigitte. As a shy and timid schoolboy, Saint Laurent was bullied by his peers at the Catholic church he attended, leading him to seek refuge in design. At a young age, he would use scraps of his mother’s clothes to create miniature couture ensembles for paper dolls, and stage fashion shows with these dolls for his siblings and their friends. He would even go so far as to create elaborate invitations for the invitees. As he grew older, Saint Laurent moved from designing ensembles for paper dolls to dreaming up dresses for his mother and sisters.
#3. He became the creative director of Christian Dior aged 21
In 1953, Saint Laurent’s drawings caught the attention of Michel de Brunhoff, who was editor-in-chief of French Vogue at the time. Brunhoff showed the sketches to Christian Dior, who hired the talented young designer as an assistant in 1955. When Dior died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1957, the then-21-year-old Saint Laurent was made the creative director of the prestigious maison. His first offering, the Spring 1958 Trapeze collection, practically saved the house from financial ruin. However, things took a turn in 1960, when Saint Laurent found himself conscripted to serve in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence. Following 20 days of hazing by fellow soldiers, the designer was admitted into a military hospital, where he received the unexpected news that he had been let go from his post as creative director for Dior. The unsettling news worsened his condition, leading to large doses of sedatives and psychoactive drugs, as well as electroshock therapy. Saint Laurent blames his time at the hospital for the mental illness and addiction that plagued him for the rest of his adult life. Upon his release from the hospital, the designer sued Dior for breach of contract, and won. He then started up his own, eponymous label with his longtime business partner Pierre Bergé.
#4. He was the first living designer to be honored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
In 1983, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced that the Costume Institute’s exhibition would be completely devoted to the works of Saint Laurent. It would go on to be the first retrospective of a living couturier’s work. The show, entitled “Yves Saint Laurent: 25 Years of Design”, was organized by Diana Vreeland, and displayed 243 of the designer’s most extraordinary creations, including the famous Mondrian- and Matisse-inspired designs from 1965, and the velvet bridal coat embroidered with the words “Love Me Forever Or Never”, an alternative to the white, billowing wedding dress.
#5. He revolutionized the way women dress
His biggest regret may be that he didn’t invent denim, but the designer has revolutionized the way women dress in more ways than one can imagine. The prolific Saint Laurent was the creator of the still-iconic “Le Smoking”, the first-ever women’s tuxedo suit that quickly became a symbol of emancipation in the 1960s, an era when women wearing anything but dresses was deemed taboo. During his last haute couture show in 2002, the designer recalled: “I always wanted to put myself at the service of women. I wanted to accompany them in the great movement for liberation that occurred last century.” The constantly reinterpreted Le Smoking was the first of a string of eternal designs including safari jackets, color block Mondrian dresses, and the “chubby” from Monsieur Saint Laurent’s 1971 couture Libération/Quarante, or Scandal, collection.