PARIS (Reuters) - French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent has died at the age of 71, hailed as a 20th century cultural innovator who revolutionized the way women dressed.
The couture creations of the reclusive Saint Laurent won global fine art status and he was widely considered to be one of an elite club of designers including Christian Dior and Coco Chanel who made Paris the fashion capital of the world.
His long-time companion, Pierre Berge, told RTL radio the designer had been diagnosed with a brain tumor last year and had died on Sunday in Paris.
From Princess Grace of Monaco to the actress Catherine Deneuve, Saint Laurent’s creations adorned many famous women but he was also the first designer to make luxury labels accessible to a wide audience through innovative ready-to-wear collections.
He made his appearance on the world stage at just 21 and built up a clothes, perfumes and accessories empire that resulted in a 1989 stock market flotation — the first by a fashion house.
But Saint Laurent also suffered from severe depression and underwent treatment for alcohol abuse and became increasingly withdrawn later in life.
The daily Le Figaro gave over its whole front page to the man it called “the world’s greatest couturier” and President Nicolas Sarkozy praised Saint Laurent as a creative genius. “He was convinced that beauty was a luxury that every man and woman needed,” Sarkozy said.
The president’s wife, former model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, said: “My heart wrenches when I think of Mr Saint Laurent. He was an artist and an exceptional human being.”
Berge told France Info radio: “Chanel gave women freedom. Yves Saint Laurent gave them power.”
“(But) he was someone who was very shy and introverted, who had only very few friends and hid himself from the world.”
A memorial mass will be held on Thursday in the church Saint Roch in Paris, the traditional church of artists and musicians.
Saint Laurent, who retired in 2002, was credited with changing forever what women wore, making the trouser suit a daytime staple and the tuxedo an elegant option.
He also popularized safari jackets and thigh-high boots, and his transparent blouses made near-nudity acceptable in high society.
“He completely revamped a woman’s wardrobe,” luxury underwear designer Chantal Thomass told French radio. “His fashion was full of color and inspired by art.”
The eldest child of a wealthy French industrialist, Saint Laurent was born and grew up in the then French colony of Algeria and showed a talent for design, making clothes for his younger sisters’ dolls.
At 17 he entered a Paris fashion school, and his sketch for a cocktail dress won first prize in an annual contest.
Introduced to Christian Dior, the gangly Saint Laurent was hired on the spot by the creator of the “New Look” and became his chief assistant. On Dior’s death in 1957, Saint Laurent became chief designer and swiftly outshone his mentor.
After his first collection introduced the widely copied “trapeze” silhouette with narrow shoulders and flared skirt, the shy 21-year-old was pushed out on to the Dior building balcony and crowds in the avenue below hailed him like royalty.
Saint Laurent directed Dior for three years, until drafted for military service during the Algerian war.
For a sensitive person whose homosexuality had made his school years a torture, army life was an ordeal. He had a nervous breakdown and spent nearly three months in hospital.
Berge arranged financial backing, and Saint Laurent presented his first collection under his own name in 1962.
The “YSL” empire grew steadily and Saint Laurent showed an instinctive ability to sense what the mood on the streets was and turn it into high fashion.
But by the late 1980s his health problems were an issue.
Insiders said Saint Laurent, who never read newspapers or listened to the radio, became increasingly cut off from reality and lost touch with all but a tiny group of friends.
“Fame has destroyed him,” Berge once said.
Despite the personal demons, his business empire thrived. The 1989 flotation was a runaway success.
But when the Gulf War erupted and the world economy slumped in the early 1990s, Berge and Saint Laurent sank into debt.
In 1992, YSL was absorbed by cosmetics and drugs company Sanofi, with Saint Laurent retaining creative control. Then in 1999 it was bought by the Gucci group, itself controlled by French luxury giant PPR.
Additional reporting by Astrid Wendlandt, Gwenaelle Barzic and James Mackenzie; Editing by Jon Boyle