Brand YSL a runway success

Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent may be no more, but his world-famous brand will live on...

Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

The legendary French designer, who is widely credited with revolutionising women’s fashion during the 1960s and 70s, died on Sunday night in Paris after finally succumbing to illness. He’d been living as a virtual recluse since retiring in 2002, but the outpouring of emotion today after the announcement of his death shows just how influential he was within the fashion world.

His main cultural legacy, judging by the various obituaries today, will be his abiding impact on women’s fashion. His radical new styles – which included trouser suits, safari jackets and tuxedos – changed the way that women dressed forever, reflecting a more confident and powerful image. Former partner Pierre Bergé, who revealed the news of the designer’s death, told France Info radio: ‘Chanel gave women freedom. Yves Saint Laurent gave them power.’ A trouser suit may not seem like a big deal, but he probably did more to encourage greater equality in the workplace than many a highfalutin corporate initiative…

But we shouldn’t under-estimate his business legacy either. The most obvious element of this is his eponymous YSL brand, which he built from nothing into an international multi-million pound business – even taking it public in the late 1980s with huge success. Sadly, it all went pear-shaped later on. Absorbed into the French state-owned group Elf Sanofi in the early 1990s, it was bought by rival Gucci in 1999 for $1bn – and as part of the deal, Saint Laurent (along with Berge) sold off all his rights to the brand. Although he stayed on for a while to run the haute couture label, he’s apparently regretted this decision ever since.

However, perhaps more influential in the long term was his drive to bring haute couture to the high street, through prêt-a-porter labels like Rive Gauche. This has proved to be a shrewd business move as well as an industry milestone, and many of today’s big fashion businesses have got fat and rich on the back of it. Although Saint Laurent probably wasn’t too impressed when he found out you could buy YSL shirts for £5.99 in TK Maxx…

Of course, Saint Laurent also embodied some of the risks inherent when a creative genius is tasked with running a huge business. Once described by Bergé as ‘born with a nervous breakdown’, he suffered a variety of mental and physical health problems – he had a breakdown after being conscripted to the French army to fight his fellow Algerians, and later battled with addictions to all kinds of things – including booze, drugs and sex. In some ways, it’s remarkable his body held out as long as it did.

Still, creating one of the world’s best known brands is not a bad legacy to leave behind...

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