PARIS (AFP) — On stepping down from his design pedestal after almost half a century, and once and for all laying down his pencils, Yves Saint Laurent spelled out his fashion statement as empowering women.
"I wanted to accompany women in this great liberation movement of the last century," he said on retiring in 2002. "I created the contemporary woman's wardrobe."
Seen as the last of the great couturiers of the 20th century, Saint Laurent, who died Sunday aged 71, was always surrounded by women and, like all creators, equally alert to the buzz of the times.
When he first stepped into the fashion trade as a 19-year-old in the late 1950s, Paris' highly expensive haute couture houses were still in the business of offering rich women clothes to redefine their silhouettes.
Saint Laurent's ground-breaking "trapeze" dresses, slinky androgynous tuxedo wear and simple coats ushered in a dress-code revolution.
His designs "were the antithesis of the haute-couture school with its premise of buttressing and correcting the woman's silhouette," said Alicia Drake in her book "The Beautiful Fall" about the coming of Saint Laurent and his rival Karl Largerfeld.
His trapeze dresses, his first solo collection at the age of 22 for the house of Christian Dior, and his launchpad to stardom, had narrow shoulders and wide skirts -- worlds away from the tight waists and girdle-constricting fashions of the time.
In 1962, once he had opened his own house with lover and business associate Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent threw out a simple navy pea coat worn with white pants.
Best remembered however is his 1966 "smoking" or tuxedo, often worn over bare flesh, which caused a scandal when worn by New York socialite Nan Kempner at a Manhattan restaurant. After being told women could not dine in trousers, Kempner dropped the pants and sat down to dinner in the jacket, about the length of a short dress.
They were the years of Women's Lib, of sexual revolution, and women increasingly going to work.
"The reason why I wear so many trousers is thanks to Yves Saint Laurent," said Japanese designer Hanae Mori on Monday. "Even before anybody else he understood what the new woman was."
Hillary Clinton, always in trouser-suits in her run for US presidential candidate, also had reason to be grateful, wrote London's Financial Times. His death, it said, "is a reminder of how he revolutionised the lives of working women."
In a rare recent television interview, Saint Laurent said he went looking for his new look in the male wardrobe. "I had noticed men were much more confident in their clothes. So I sought through trouser-suits, trench-coats tuxedos and pea-coats to give women the same confidence."
Designing for his glamorous inner-circle women friends, Catherine Deneuve, Bianca Jagger or Paloma Picasso, Saint Laurent's designs, however, were far from workplace mundane. He went for see-through shirts and soft skirts, softening up the masculine side.
He was known for his subtle use of colour, for inspiration from artists such as Picasso, Mondrian or the celebrated Russian ballet.
"He created for women with a double life," said Deneuve.
"By day his clothes would help us confront a world full of unknown faces, without attracting attention.... At night when we were with friends he helped us look seductive."
Speaking after his death, Berge said "Yves Saint Laurent's talent is to have endured.
"It's to have not been fashionable but to have been faithful to a style."
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