Kylie Boltin charts the rise of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent, the subject of a recent retrospective at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
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15 Sep 2008 - 2:07 PM  UPDATED 7 Nov 2012 - 3:30 AM

I did some reconnaissance this week – taking myself to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image for a dose of films about the late French designer and icon, Yves Saint Laurent.

I say reconnaissance because no one pulls off black leather with a gold, Egyptian vampire slaying necklace like Catherine Deneuve - or for that matter David Bowie– costumes by Saint Laurent in The Hunger (Scott, 1983), but seeing it all happen on the big screen is not too bad a substitute.

And all is not lost – there’s always the option, as Yves told a Russian press conference in 1976, 'To knit yourself a black turtleneck." One of the tips I picked up from the documentary, \"Yves Saint Laurent His Life and Times" (Teboul, 2002).

It’s rare that a 'get to know him’ doc such as this one is not going to hit the mark when you have such an enigmatic, high end, intellectual subject with a backdrop of palatial, mirrored interiors that provide to-die-for 'mise-en-scene’ — rich velvet chairs, gold statuettes, flawless outfits and parrots (!). (Though why the director let an interview with Saint Laurent’s partner, Pierre Bergé run for as long as it did with the parrots screaming in the background is beyond me.)

The doc opens with the credits on black with the sound of a cigarette being lit. Fade up and there’s Yves in wide shot — staunchly refusing to look at the camera, reminiscing instead with the narrative guidance of his favourite writer, Proust. My earliest memory was"¦

According to Yves, he was happiest in Algeria in 1940, by the Mediterranean, amongst his family and friends. We see the photographs to prove it and then cut to the present again with Yves’ mother, Lucienne Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, who tells us that he grew up surrounded by women. That he revised the way his aunt dressed at age 3 and a half, 'He didn’t like the dress she was wearing" Mrs Mathieu-Saint-Laurent said, 'He changed it."

The momentum had started and by now we knew for sure that there would be secrets.

Yves always knew that his name would be in gold on the Champs Elysées – he announced it to his family when he was in the 11th grade. And it didn’t take long for that prophecy to come true. His first dress, at age 16, won the Wool Secretariat Competition and was made by Hubert de Givenchy. In the documentary, Edmonde Charles-Rox (PA to the director of French Vogue, Michel de Brunoff) says that that Saint Laurent’s signature style was already established when he first sent this and other designs, unsolicited, to Michel de Brunoff. The French Vogue editor then did something he’d never done before, for anyone – he took them directly to Christian Dior who immediately opened his doors to Yves. Four years later, Dior died and Yves became the head designer.

Phenomenal.

Throughout the doc, Saint Laurent and those who loved and admired him reflect openly on the man and his rise to global domination. A revolutionary, says Pierre Bergé in interview for the documentary, 'profoundly so. But a conventional revolutionary. Yves is unlucky – he’s only ever met one person in his life and that person bores him. It’s himself! If he liked himself it would be fine." While for Yves, we see in a filmed archival interview, it is the life of a Beatnik he would have loved most to lead if he ever had the chance to start over again.

Access to such a large source of often brilliant and rare archive material, at times interpreted by the key players, brings the past to life in counterpoint to extended talking head interviews. 'I was pushed onto the balcony like a hero," Saint Laurent says of images taken the day of his first collection for Dior. 'See how young I looked? At the time it was absolutely crazy to entrust such a house to a 21-year-old boy."

Crazy it may have seemed to outsiders at the time but success immediately followed. Yves Saint Laurent’s fascinating life and times were chock full of extraordinary firsts and well worth an examination. A documentary for fans and those willing to be initiated.