At 8:36 p.m. on Tuesday, January 22, the mirrored doors slid shut on Yves Saint Laurent and his final couture collection. What the 2,000 attendees at the Pompidou Centre (and the several thousand more outside in front of a giant screen) had just witnessed was a career summation without comparison—a tour through 40 years of fashion that distilled the essence of a legend.

There was Saint Laurent's first couture collection after being fired from Dior, opening with a simple pea coat over large white trousers before moving into sharply tailored suits and four-pocket safari jackets. There was the Mondrian dress from 1966, when pop-art faces appeared on straight-cut woolen shifts. And, from 1968, there was the iconic beige cotton jacket in which Veruschka posed on safari, sexily laced up the chest and draped with a silver loop belt. Tonight, Claudia Schiffer pouted out in the same outfit, before eight African girls emerged wearing the fringed, woven, tressed and beaded raffia dresses from that same '68 show. A slip dress, heavily embroidered with jet, featured conical breasts—a full 25 years before Gaultier hit the headlines with the same idea.

There were more incredible thrills to come, like seeing the infamous 1971 "robe au dos nu" ("dress with naked back") slink down the catwalk. (It was most famously photographed by Jean-Loup Sieff, who notoriously shot YSL nude for a perfume launch the same year.) Black '70s model Katoucha glided out in a golden feathered cloak over a leopard-print sheath dress.

But the Saint Laurent moment par excellence was Jerry Hall as Marlene Dietrich, vamping in a white ostrich-feather coat over a gleaming white satin gown. As she exited to Roxy Music's "Love Is the Drug," a bevy of black-velvet full-décolleté dresses was ushered in.

What is extraordinary chez Saint Laurent is the clarity of his creative vision—the self-assurance of the color palette, the confidence of the cut. Even at their most baroque, like the Russian or Picasso collections, his designs managed to sidestep vulgar excess. Couture will go on. But Monsieur Yves Saint Laurent will be terribly missed.