I usually judge an biographical film by what I learn as I'm watching it, coupled with my desire to find out more about the central figure or subject as soon as I'm out of the theater. I recently saw YSL and it definitely had that kind of strong effect on me. For those who weren't already familiar with how Yves Saint Laurent died, we know by the film's end that it was brain cancer. What I found out later that night, furiously trolling through the Internet in the dark, was that neither Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent's long-term partner, nor the designer's doctors told him that he in fact had cancer; they thought that it would be too much for him, mentally and emotionally. That astounded me, especially given that we weren't talking about the olden days. This was sometime in the aughts. Something else I later learned: Saint Laurent and Hedi Slimane (who oversees the label today) are more alike that I ever though, both in nature and in aesthetic choices.
After getting less than favorable reviews in early 1971 to his 1940s-inspired collection, Saint Laurent banned many members of the press from attending his couture show later that year. And well, Mr. Slimane hasn't been so generous with critical reviewers either. He famously banned the Times' top fashion critic Cathy Horyn from a 2012 show, calling her "schoolyard bully and also a little bit of a standup comedian" via Twitter. He also said, "her sense of style is seriously challenged." Youch.
But speaking of style, Saint Laurent and Slimane both share a tendency to favor and appropriate the subversive, from unglamorous streetwear such as leather jackets (early Saint Laurent and later Slimane in one of YSL's recent grunge-inspired collection) to collections that echo, deliberately or not, unsavory moments in history (Saint Laurent's aforementioned 1971 collection, that was likened by critics to Nazi-era fashions).
Reading more about Mr. Saint Laurent also made me think about fashion today in general, especially this excerpt from Vogue.com:
By 1973, when the house switched to a grueling new schedule of presenting four shows a year—two couture and two prêt-à-porter, instead of just two couture shows—the designer was feeling increasingly shackled in his own ever-expanding kingdom, which now included not only two clothing lines but numerous licenses for perfumes, sunglasses, and beach towels—all engineered by the shrewd business genius of Bergé. Saint Laurent confessed to Newsweek, “I’ve made a rope to hang myself with. I’d love to be able to do fashion when I want to, but I’m a prisoner of my own commercial empire.”
I can't even imagine how he'd have reacted to today's breakneck-paced schedule, what with resort collections tossed into the mix now, too. Saint Laurent was right: fashion is a commercial empire. And not just his own, but the industry in general. To some extent, almost all of fashion today is fast fashion. As much as Saint Laurent's era was well before my years, a part of me mourns for that time (when there was simply more time to be had).