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Play It Again, Yves

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Since the death of Yves Saint Laurent (pictured at work, above) in 2008, there’s been no shortage of tributes, headlines, and homages. But the Saint Laurent retrospective, opening this Thursday at Paris’ Petit Palais, is the biggest yet. The show includes 307 couture pieces in pristine, barely worn condition, from the vaults of the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, as well as drawings, photographs, and films. (The Fondation will host a show of ready-to-wear from the YSL Rive Gauche collections next February.)

“Chanel liberated women, but Yves Saint Laurent gave them power,” Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s partner in business and life, said at a press preview of the show. In case anyone was fool enough to argue with Bergé, the exhibition proves his point. There’s the famous menswear touch YSL brought to womenswear in the form of his Le Smoking tuxedo suit from 1966, and also the caban (peacoat) suit, which opens the show. And then there’s the feminine element, too: the nearly nude silk mousseline blouses and backless Chantilly lace dresses. One room, covered floor to ceiling with color swatches from the archives, attests to inspiration drawn from the palettes of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; another shows the debt to fine art, with collections inspired by Mondrian, Matisse, Van Gogh, and the Bambaran art of Africa. Even where collections were greeted with less than reverence, it’s hard not to hear Saint Laurent having the last laugh. An entire room is devoted to the scandalous, forties-inspired Spring ’71 couture collection, the first to take vintage as an influence. It was unanimously panned by the press—unfavorable reviews paper the gallery walls—before being enthusiastically taken up by trend-setting women from Jane Birkin to Bianca Jagger.

This show may be the biggest, but it’s not the first. As Bergé fondly recalled, Diana Vreeland organized Yves Saint Laurent: 25 Years of Design at the Met in New York in 1983. “Philippe de Montebello, the museum’s director at the time said, ‘But Diana, you can’t imagine devoting a show to a designer who puts his name on everything, including neckties.’ But Yves Saint Laurent was always about creation,” said Bergé. “It was big business too, but creativity came first.”

Yves Saint Laurent runs March 11 through August 29 at Le Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Avenue Winston Churchill, Paris, +33 1 53 43 40 00, www.petitpalais.paris.fr

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