Durham Book Festival: YSL ‘Style is Eternal’

The Durham Book Festival, open to all every October, plays host to many during its short time in the city. This year, this included the famed author of the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, Phillip Pulman. For a few however the appeal rested elsewhere, with the unexpected addition of haute couture.An organized talk was held with Lauren Laverne and Laura Craik on how in fashion the phrase ‘Style is Eternal’ is still being used. This was based on the exhibition currently still being held until the 8th of November at the Bowes Museum, in collaboration with the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.

The Bowes Museum has strong connections with France- the museum was built by an Etonian, John Bowes, and his French actress, Joséphine, who was very interested in the arts. The head of the YSL exposition reminded us that she must have been both charismatic and beautiful for John Bowes to buy the theatre in France where she performed just to look at her. One must imagine that Yves must have felt the same adoration when one of his muses first tried on something from his collection …After all, were not all of Yves Saint Laurent’s muses charismatic and beautiful like this?

The YSL gowns were brought over from Paris after a lengthy interview with the head of the exposition and the people at the Fondation Pierre Bergé. Some of the most iconic pieces were displayed- the Schiaparelli dress, the iconic masculine collection that led to the birth of the female tuxedo (or ‘Le Smoking’ as it was called), and the more tailored styles of the First World War. The exposition flows chronologically- from the earliest moments of the fashion house and YSL’s work at Dior to some of the more risqué ideas inspired by his love of artists like Mondrian and Picasso.

The designer for the Dior fashion house has an interesting past. After winning the prize from the International Wool Secretariat Prize for his sketches, his sketches were seen by Michel de Brunhoff, the editor of French Vogue at the time. He then sent him to Dior when he saw similarities in their work. Yves moved up the ranks in Dior, and soon he was submitting his own designs for the shows. Although Dior was only 52 at the time, he appointed Yves early on as his successor, and he died later that year of a heart attack. The speakers at the Book Festival aimed to bring us into this world gone by where a huge fashion house was championed and headed by that young Yves, aged only 21.

How could the audience even imagine it now, since at 21 most designers are still in college? It must have also been a little strange at the time.

Anyway, back to the history lesson.

From that moment on, Yves overcame the barriers that halted him in his career as a designer. He got fired from Dior when he signed on for the war in France in 1960, and filed a lawsuit for being fired against his former employers and won. He and his partner Pierre Bergé set up Yves Saint Laurent YSL with money from an American businessman, J. Mack Robinson, who saw promise in their work. The historical aspects of the YSL story end here.

What did the speakers say about why was YSL the pioneer when it came to ‘eternal style’?

The phrase nowadays appeals more to those fashionable few with impeccable outfits who are religious attendees at each Fashion Week, posing outside the doors to a hoard of photographers. Many less interested in fashion would say that it is more of an attitude than it is an appearance- as Laura said- the ‘je ne sais quoi’ that lets French women get out of bed in the morning looking as perfect as Lea Seydoux with a cigarette, instead of groggy and smudged from the night out before. YSL really tried to emphasize the role of ‘effortless’ dressing- a simpler, more luxurious way of indulging in fashion, shocking the more modest, conservative women of the time. His ‘smoking’ tuxedo was described as ‘mannish’ and the sheer blouses must have caused an outrage to a society still years away from the ‘Free the Nipple’ campaign. Women became more confident in themselves, and a new type of empowerment came from the YSL brand and his manly jackets.

He quickly became famous, with actresses and models aspiring to be the next YSL muse, like the now legendary Iman, Catherine Deneuve and Loulou de la Falaise. These women became icons in their own right, as previously models were shunned in the spotlight, as they were only part of the show to display the clothes. YSL brought out their different personalities and backgrounds, and let them take part in some aspects of the creations of his lines. These models were tall, waify and elegant, contrary to previous models that were usually just thin and beautiful.

The era was aplenty with young designers trying to set their mark, but only YSL managed to achieve his dream at such a young age. Even though the liberty he had would now be unthought-of (as no one now would let someone barely out of university head up a brand worth millions), the designs were spectacular, and YSL still holds strong as a brand today. YSL brought about a new type of woman- confident to wear clothes originally designed for men, and stylish enough to pull it off ‘effortlessly’, and make every other woman on the planet want to do the same.

The considerable effort that the Bowes Museum put into creating the exhibition should be commended- the exhibition itself is extremely well thought out in terms of the different categories and inspirations.

In a more modern narrative of the ‘YSL style’, the speakers enlightening points drew my attention to things I had previously missed when it came to the designer so I cannot commend the Durham Book Festival enough for inviting Lauren Laverne and Laura Craik in just for that day.

Maybe a couple more of these fashion-related talks next year would enliven the interested students and listeners in Durham?

By Stylion

Writer, creative and explorer of all things Japan. Central Saint Martins graduate and fashion journalist for 1 Granary and Lampoon Magazine. Writing about all things fashion – from fashion weeks, food and technology to fake influencers, art exhibitions and cultures around the world.

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