Designer as Artist: Yves Saint Laurent Retrospective Makes Its Only U.S. Stop in Denver

An installation view of the Last Ball section of the show — a selection of gowns from the glory days of haute couture.
(Courtesy the Denver Art Museum)

DENVER – With an impeccable eye and an artistic flair, designer Yves Saint Laurent used fabric, sequins, and feathers like paint and beautiful women such as Catherine Deneuve, Loulou de la Falaise, Betty Catroux, and Princess Grace of Monaco as his canvasses throughout his 40-year career. “Fashion is not an art,” said Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent co-founder and the designer’s partner in both business and life. “But fashion needs an artist to exist — Yves Saint Laurent was an artist — a great artist.”
Indeed, the late Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, was a great artist and one of the most iconic couturiers in fashion. On March 25, the Denver Art Museum will open “Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective,” following the exhibition’s Paris debut and a stint in Madrid. It is the retrospective’s first and only American stop, showcasing some 200 YSL ensembles — the largest exhibition of Saint Laurent’s work. “It’s the most important retrospective ever done of Yves Saint Laurent,” said curator Florence Müller at the exhibition preview Thursday.
Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective” isn’t set up chronologically, but rather through important themes. The show opens with the silhouette Saint Laurent created that Müller said freed women’s bodies: four trapeze dresses from his days at Christian Dior in the late-’50s. To the right there is a recreation of Saint Laurent’s trestle table desk at his Paris atelier, where viewers can see photographs of his beloved French bulldog Moujik, fabric swatches on a bulletin board behind his chair, and piles of fashion books and sketches.
The next section examines “The Saint Laurent Gender Revolution” —the designer’s groundbreaking move in the ’60s to put men’s-style trousers and his legendary “le smoking” tuxedo jacket on women, who at the time typically wore skirts or dresses. (In France it was unheard of for women to wear pants). “Yves Saint Laurent & Women” shows looks worn by important females — including the delicate black and gold lace dress, gold-embroidered black gazar jacket, and gold headpiece worn by Costume Institute consultant Diana Vreeland at the opening of Saint Laurent’s first museum show, the 1983 Met exhibition.
The exhibit includes four more large sections: “Imaginary Journeys” travels through Saint Laurent’s culturally-driven collections, reinterpretations of traditional Spanish, Indian, Chinese, and Russian clothes. “A Dialogue With Art” displays his art-inspired creations: the sequined Van Gogh-influenced jackets from the ’80s, his iconic 1965 Mondrian dress, along with pieces inspired by Braque, Matisse, and more. “The Iconic Tuxedo” is a nod to his tailored jackets and love for the color black. And “The Last Ball” places his dramatic evening gowns in one place, on a red-carpeted multi-level platform under crystal chandeliers.
Also scattered throughout are vignettes: a section showing Saint Laurent’s relationship to Deneuve through her clothes and the costumes she wore in “Belle du Jour”; a section of a wall introducing “La Vilaine Lulu” (“The Naughty Lulu”), the heroine of a comic he published in 1967; another with a series of 1971 black-and-white nude portraits of the designer, shot by Jeanloup Sieff; a hall with walls covered in a rainbow of fabric swatches; a small screening area for documentary films about Saint Laurent; and the show’s finale: a gold heart he placed on the model wearing his favorite outfit for good luck at every runway show.
“It indicates how a very creative mind shaped the way people are looking,” Denver Art Museum director Christoph Heinrich said of the exhibition.
The retrospective of Saint Laurent’s tremendous oeuvre is more than just a series of clothes; it’s a look at the creativity of one of the most revolutionary fashion designers of our time and the work of a designer who was also a great artist. Go back in time and see how the silhouettes Saint Laurent conceptualized still impact fashion today.

Click on the slide show to see highlights from “Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective,” on view at the Denver Art Museum through July 8.