Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, who died in June 2008 at the age of 71, was not only the most influential designer of the second half of the twentieth century, he was also the most mythic: a dreamy, fragile creature with huge eyeglass frames (he wore nothing else in one iconic portrait) and a private life in frequent disarray. As his onetime companion (and later strictly business partner) Pierre Bergé put it, Saint Laurent was born with a nervous breakdown. Hailing from French-ruled Algeria, the designer started his business in Paris in 1961 with Bergé's financial backing. Saint Laurent was already a compelling figure, having been lionized as the savior of the house of Dior at the age of 21, and before long he was turning out couture collections—and then ready-to-wear, under the Rive Gauche label—that drew alternately aghast and enraptured headlines. The images from these vividly themed collections flash through the fashion history books like stills from a movie: the androgynous Weimar tuxedos of 1966, the midiskirts of 1971's reviled World War II show, the Cossack chic of 1976's sublime Ballets Russes collection. From the safari jacket and the peacoat to the famous Le Smoking, Saint Laurent's successes were so potent, they became absorbed into the common vernacular of late-century fashion. When it revived retro ideas, the house was in the vanguard of a trend that eventually became so mainstream that by the nineties it was almost the only way to do fashion.
By then Saint Laurent had largely retreated from the stage. Alber Elbaz and then Tom Ford tried their respective hands at a few ready-to-wear collections, while the couture operation was shuttered, to a sigh of Parisian nostalgia, in 2002. Stefano Pilati, who served under Ford at YSL, held the reins from 2004 until 2012. His tenure produced a thriving accessories business and some acclaimed collections. Early on, especially, his designs had a strong trickle-down effect on other top talents, but later collections were deemed too tricky by critics. Hedi Slimane began making changes soon after he was named creative director, renaming the label Saint Laurent and, perhaps even more surprisingly, moving its design atelier to his home base in Los Angeles.
Hedi Slimane didn't so much arrive on the menswear scene as he exploded. The signature skinny look he established during his seven-year tenure at Dior Homme, where he landed after four years at Yves Saint Laurent, shook up a staid industry. The streamlined cut of his suits was hugely influential, and it wasn't just rockers like Pete Doherty who were fans. His creations had crossover appeal with bold-face females like Madonna. But despite all the noise he was making at Dior Homme, he quietly stepped away from the atelier in 2007, moved to Los Angeles, and picked up the camera full-time.
His reinvention as a photographer was swift. Cultural figures from Robert De Niro to Amy Winehouse to Gisele Bündchen and Kate Moss all sat for him, and his work was exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2011. Still, fashion's siren call is strong, and after years of "will he or won't he" questions, he returned to the business in 2012, assuming the creative director role of Yves Saint Laurent, his first job in womenswear. He didn't go back to Paris, however. In a pair of unexpected moves, he changed the label's name and logo to Saint Laurent and set up the design studio in his adopted hometown of L.A.