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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters Life!) - Pierre Berge didn't know the first thing about fashion when he sat down one day in 1958 to watch the first Christian Dior show under the atelier's new youthful designer, Yves Saint Laurent.
Still, even with Berge's layman's eye, it was immediately apparent that the young designer had electrified the crowd.
"Even though I knew nothing about fashion, I realized something was happening," recalled Berge, who enjoyed a 50-year collaboration with Saint Laurent that lasted until the designer's death in June.
The first public showing of Saint Laurent's work since his death opened at San Francisco's DeYoung Museum this past weekend. The collection of 130 ensembles spans 40 years from the designer's trapeze dresses for Dior to the famous tuxedos, jumpsuits and safari jackets that revolutionized women's fashion and established the Yves Saint Laurent label as the icon of innovative couture.
"Hailed as the last of an era, Saint Laurent was the bridge between the golden age of haute couture and the new modernity," according to the show notes.
Fashionable women including French actress Catherine Deneuve, Princess Grace of Monaco and Bianca Jagger, who wore a white tuxedo suit to her marriage to Mick Jagger, were fans.
Whereas Coco Chanel liberated women from the confines of corsetry, Yves Saint Laurent gave her "strength and power," Berge said. The "le smoking" tuxedo, made for French singer Francoise Hardy in 1966, turned the symbol of male power on its head.
But just as deftly, Yves Saint Laurent embraced the feminine, whether a 1990 black lace one-shoulder gown held together at the side by two pink silk bows, or his famous wool crepe gown from 1970 whose black lace inlay exposes the back.
"He liked women to be beautiful," said Baroness Helene de Ludinghausen, the long-time "directrice" of the studio whose job it was to bring in new clients.
The exhibition displays looks from the Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation's collection of more than 5000 catalogued haute couture garments stored in Paris, which Berge called "absolutely unique" in its size.
"Yves would have been very proud to see this collection," Berge said of the retrospective, which debuted in Montreal earlier this year. "After all, it's his life."
From 1988, exhibit-goers see Yves Saint Laurent experimenting with sculpture and geometry. In a tribute to Georges Braque, the bodice of a salmon-colored silk crepe gown is adorned with the beak of a beaded dove, its outspread wings rising into a dramatic collar.
More than 20 years earlier, the couturier's 1965 collection included his famous homage to Piet Mondrian, a dress of geometric blocks of color, a contrast to the curves of the female body.
Saint Laurent found inspiration in world culture, whether it was in Russian peasant life, Spanish bullfights, or more exotic locales.
In a 1967 African-inspired coat Sepia-colored raffia cascades in tiers; a black dress from the same year is a patchwork of intricate wood beads and metal plates, its conical breasts predate by more than 20 years French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier's cone bra for Madonna.
"Everything he did was copied by the entire world," said de Ludinghausen.
Reporting by Alexandria Sage; editing by Patricia Reaney