Originally printed in the March 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
In France, in the early Sixties, the yé-yé era was taking off. French pop stars Françoise Hardy and France Gall were singing about unrequited love, and Catherine Deneuve was getting noticed for her ice maiden looks in movies like Les parisiennes. Meanwhile, on the arty Left Bank in Paris, in the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a new fashion house was emerging. Yves Saint Laurent, founded and designed by Christian Dior’s former protégé, was introducing clothes that “emancipated women.” Indeed, when he created the Le smoking tuxedo in 1966, which both Hardy and Deneuve were quick to don, Saint Laurent made a statement that resonated. The idea of wearing a man’s uniform – pants – provoked both a new way of dressing and a heightened sensuality. The wife of Morocco’s ambassador to the UN, Aïcha Laghzaoui Benhima, recalls her pleasure at the stunned reaction spurred by her entrance at La Grenouille restaurant in New York in an Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit. It was a material reflection of a growing power shift. Women ran with it.
Saint Laurent’s muses – Deneuve, but also Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise – along with his libertine lifestyle that involved frequent jaunts to Marrakech, ensured that he, along with his designs, was to be followed. The designer knew how to shock, and provocatively posing nude for his launch perfume campaign, Pour Homme (1971), was no exception. The creative directors that came after Saint Laurent followed suit. Tom Ford spent his workweeks between Italy and France as the creative director for both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. He also turned heads when he placed a porcelain-skinned Sophie Dahl in nothing but heels in a campaign to promote Opium perfume. Hedi Slimane marked his four-year tenure with a slew of controversial decisions. He moved the French design house to LA, removed the “Yves” from Saint Laurent for ready-to-wear collections (no one seemed to recall that this was its original name), and gave the boutiques a stone-cold, marble makeover. When he bid adieu to the maison, A-list musicians were flocking to Yves Saint Laurent like groupies. It was again the brand that everyone desired.
Since April 2016, Yves Saint Laurent has ushered in a new era – that of creative director Anthony Vaccarello. In the six-line biography offered by the house, you learn that Vaccarello – a man with a penchant for worn-in white sneakers and the zodiac (the Capricorn constellation is etched onto his hand and arm) – was born in Brussels, in 1980. He is a graduate of Le Cambre School of Art and Design and has won the Grand Prix at both ANDAM and at the International Festival of Fashion & Photography at Hyères. Exalting his entrepreneurial spirt, it notes that he founded his namesake brand in 2009. It is also states that he worked alongside Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi and was appointed artistic director at Versus Versace. When he left Versus to take up at Yves Saint Laurent, Donatella Versace said that she was “sad to see him go.” Yves Saint Laurent CEO Francesca Bellettini said that she was “extremely happy,” and Vaccarello wrote in his statement that he was “extremely grateful.” Bellettini cited that his pure aesthetic was a “perfect fit” for the house and that the manner in which he “impeccably balances elements of provocative femininity and sharp masculinity in his silhouettes” made him “a natural choice to express the essence of Yves Saint Laurent.” Her communiqué, like Vaccarello’s bio, packed a punch. Perhaps he wasn’t a star designer, but he certainly was a fashion prodigy. Sort of like Saint Laurent, when he started.
Does Vaccarello ever wonder, what would Yves do? Not really. He recalls Yves Saint Laurent co-founder, Pierre Bergé, showing him around the archives. He refers to the experience of seeing “for real” the clothes etched in his memory – Le smoking tuxedo, the safari jacket, a trench coat, the polka dot pattern – as an opportunity to “have it out of my system.” He offers, “You learn things and then you take your distance from them to move on your own terms.” He remembers that Bergé told him, “Do not copy Yves. Create your own vision of Yves Saint Laurent, and then follow it.”
In an industry where creative designers flip brands every few years, four seasons into his tenure, Vaccarello considers that Yves Saint Laurent is not a springboard, but a landing deck: “It is an ongoing story, one that develops through each collection. A wardrobe is created along the way, enriched each season.” He maintains an architect’s mastery of line, which he swells or contracts with flair. There is always an underlying rebellious glamour to his clothes; a zing and energy that says, “Oui. You will go out tonight and dance, dance, dance.” Silhouettes string together his vision and key ideas of women: free, confident, and chic. He says, “To me, these ideas embody what a modern woman wants from her clothes.” Clothes aside, it’s the idea behind Saint Laurent’s work that beguiles him. “I love his subversive approach to clothes; his dark romanticism with a hint of perversity. But it’s just a hint – because through his entire work, collection, or images, you can feel how much he loved and respected women.” It is this image that is at the root of his own collections. The designer follows his instincts to create a “radical fantasy” of the house’s heritage. His SS18 offering was first revealed in an epic open-air show with the sparkling Eiffel Tower as its backdrop. He featured opulent ostrich feathers, hippy-chic blouses, and duchesse satin dresses. He also sent out only seven models in pants. Skirts and shorts grazed the thighs or higher. There was a nod to the house’s connection to the Arab world by way of its accessories. Vaccarello has been to Morocco, of course. He loves its “bohemian feeling, traveler’s spirit, and combination of cultures.” But he stops there to let his work continue the dialogue. On YSL.com, clients can shop the new season’s Berber-inspired jewelry: silver-toned brass rings and cuffs with ethnic motifs and bib necklaces adorned with tassels. Yves Saint Laurent accessories – and not just the logo bags – remain vital to the maison’s identity. In a radio interview, Saint Laurent stressed their importance when he said that women who pair “beautiful clothes with ugly shoes and ugly jewels” could consider their elegance “finished.”
At the show, in the front row, Saint Laurent’s muses Catroux and Deneuve attended in pencil slacks. So did Farida Khelfa. Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of yé-yé pioneer Serge Gainsbourg, was also in attendance, as was actor Robin Wright. Gainsbourg and Wright – in their forties and fifties respectively – arrived in miniskirts. The words of sharp-tongued Azzedine Alaïa come to mind: “Only women under 18 or over 80 should wear a miniskirt.” But Vaccarello’s stance is that attitude dictates what a woman wears – certainly not a mindless factor like age. “To me, the attitude of a Saint Laurent woman is about being confident, real, and smart,” he says. “She is free to express herself. She can weara man’s bomber jacket or a short skirt. She is fearless in her choices, no matter what they are.” He stresses, “A short dress, for example, is more about freedom and personality than being attractive. It is never meant to be vulgar.”
French writer Françoise Sagan once said, “A dress makes no sense unless it inspires men to want to take it off you.” Is provoking a man’s desire the formula to women’s freedom today? Perhaps it still is to some, but Vaccarello senses women’s greater, multidimensional spirit. He considers her liberty “a chance to push boundaries. Explore the world on her own terms.” The SS18 campaign elevates Vaccarello’s idea of freedom – literally. He and his team flew to Capri, to the Villa Malaparte, to film on the grounds of the house situated on a cliff. In the film, Kate Moss dons a white shirt dress and statement fringe boots and Jamie Bochert wears a black minidress and stilettos. The outfits add to the film’s air of mystery and tension. They climb the villa’s monumental staircase, and occasionally pause for a cigarette or a laugh. Moss lies back languorously on the steps, entirely satisfied in the now, before slipping into an undershirt and fur coat to take in the view.
Vaccarello drew the collection after amassing images from movies, video clips, art books, and even pictures from his phone. He selected the ones that would tell his own, new narrative – that of a woman who lives by her own terms. It is a life that many Parisiennes have claimed since the Sixties, and one that women around the world are still aspiring to today. And yes, unadulterated liberal escapism is part of their fantasy, too.