Friday, June 6, 2008

Elegance as protest: Yves Saint Laurent -- Exemplary Sufferer, Exemplary Pleasure-Seeker

I started writing this, thinking it would simply be a preamble to the rest of my C.O.L.A. and L.A.C.E. auction (RePresent) notes (and a few other things); but, as you can see, it turned into a more extended digression -- almost an essay which, rather than pick over further, as it seems like I've been doing the last few days in and out of the Flynt Building (or in and out of bed), I've decided to post as is before I even post the rest of my notes (as well as the notes from the last couple of week-ends). I don't know about you, dear reader, but I'd need to take a breath after the block of text that follows. (Sorry about that.) You'd be forgiven for calling it nostalgia; but I prefer to look at it as Obama damage -- the 'damage' of hope. After this past Tuesday, I think I can be forgiven.

My hopes are now ... with the Lakers, of course.

2-3 June 2008

Saint Laurent is dead this evening as I write this. Shocking to think how large his shadow loomed only a few years ago – though, of course, it was just a shadow. He went out with fireworks – closing his house as if he were drawing the curtain on the spectacle of a century. But his glory – the sense of celebration and rebellion; the rigorous luxury; the avant-garde snickering at and seduction of the bourgeoisie; the seriously subversive, seriously elegant, seriously Parisian, seriously French qualities that characterized his greatest couture productions and the original rive gauche boutique lines – of his glory days had long since passed. To watch Saint Laurent moving haltingly, almost painfully among the sumptuous fabrics, the beautiful fitting models -- and his staff of brilliant couture professionals under the guidance of his muse and major domo, Loulou de la Falaise, taking the pulse, as it were, of both designs and designer – in the film, 5 Avenue Marceau, was almost painful. You had the sense that the pleasure of a luxurious fabric sculpted into a finished piece, the fragile beauty of the dressed model were his only oxygen. (It couldn’t have helped that he smoked incessantly.) You had the sense that the work alone was keeping him alive.

That Tom Ford managed to resurrect some of the qualities of his past successes could not have given him much cheer. His best work always had the spirit and currency of the new; whatever pleasure luxury and refinement could supply could never revive that spirit. The Saint Laurent we see in 5, Avenue Marceau is an almost shattered human being. But there’s something about this portrait (if we can really call it that) that leads the viewer to wonder if what we’re watching is an unfolding inevitability – a kind of via Dolorosa, the inexorable progression of a king’s court to its end (as if Saint Laurent, like Elizabeth I of England, was determined to die standing up).

It was Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s longtime companion and business partner, who said that Saint Laurent was “born with a nervous breakdown”; and there were many episodes of the designer’s life over the years that gave ample testimony to his emotional delicacy and imbalance, neurasthenia, his addictions, breakdowns and endless neuroses. Even the boy wonder cachet he enjoyed for his brief tenure at Dior was accentuated by an apparent reticence, what comes across in news footage from that period as almost a terror of press and publicity. He eventually conquered that terror; but would remain forever haunted by his demons.

Yet Saint Laurent’s life was also poised on the fulcrum of generational and cultural change. Born before war’s end in Oran, Algeria, a born cosmopolite in a colonial outpost; a homosexual during a time when, at least in the early part of his adult life, homosexuals were persecuted and stigmatized, notwithstanding whatever protective sanction his profession might have provided – he was a man flying by the seams of his trapeze dress. It could not have helped that not long after his success at Dior, he was drafted into the army for service in a cursed war that would have taken him back to Algeria. An apparently relentless hazing by fellow draftees and recruits was enough to break that delicate balance. (The only celebrity of the time whose military draft received more (and obviously far more flattering) attention was Elvis Presley.) His military hospital treatments probably ensured he would never be entirely free of his demons – particularly drugs.

But the world Saint Laurent returned to was already changing. Saint Laurent’s emergence as a star designer came at a pivotal cultural moment: the Sixties – a moment that saw an exploding youth culture, accompanied by an explosive surge of pop culture amounting to a mass renaissance, a blurring of distinctions between high culture and pop or mass culture, an erosion (if not leveling) of class differences; a moment of protest, rebellion, experimentation and sexual liberation. It was a moment Saint Laurent was perfectly suited, by culture, temperament and sensibility, to exploit. Having explored youth culture, Left Bank-style, even before he left Dior, Saint Laurent would now be free to take his inspiration as he found it – 20th century art (e.g., Mondrian, Cocteau, Massine, Miro, Picasso, Pop), Hollywood and film noir glamour (e.g., Dietrich/von Sternberg, Hawks, Huston), 19th and 20th century literature – Flaubert, Proust, Gide; rock’n’roll; and a certain street glamour as American as it was Parisian.

Saint Laurent’s genius was in trusting those sometimes impulsive sparks of inspiration and connecting them with the energy of the street, the circulatory rush of everyday life, particularly women’s lives; also a connection to the street as the ultimate stage, the ultimate runway, resonating with certain touchstones of a specifically French visual, cinematic and literary aesthetic. It was no accident that Luis Buñuel tapped him to design the costumes for Belle de Jour. Deneuve’s wardrobe as Séverine are a witty subversion of bourgeois proprieties: a severe, almost exaggeratedly proper, tailleur, elegantly, rigorously cut dresses, the trench coats of subtly varying lengths and details, with their variable military touches (collars, epaulets), in fabrics variously luxe and risqué (from wool boucle to black vinyl so shiny it looks like patent or even latex – rendered with clerical rather than military details, fit for the celebrant of a black mass), those patent leather pilgrim-buckle shoes, the luxurious fabrics themselves, which the film also make a joke of – all connect the worlds of comme il faut with comme ca veut, so to speak; Séverine’s dream world – the masochistic fantasy, the daytime brothel (a fantasy perhaps equally enhanced by Geneviève Page’s innate elegance) – with the quotidian realities of bourgeois households and commercial streets. (Saint Laurent also designed costumes for Resnais’ Stavisky, which – set in a world of 1930s “Biarritz bonheur” – must have been a romp for him.)

Regardless of his inspirations high or low, the best Saint Laurent looks partake of a certain cool elegance – without excessive refinement, a shade more street smart than, say, Givenchy; and with a nod (or slouch) to the specifically Parisian glamour of street and café. It was in its own way a kind of democratization of elegance that American designers – I think Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, particularly; also Marc Jacobs and Stephen Srpouse – would be heavily influenced by. Saint Laurent reached across the Seine to Saint Germain-des-Près and the Quartier Latin only to make his influence felt clear across the East River. If the New York street glamour that is so familiar to us, especially in its downtown incarnations, was a by-product of Warhol’s enterprise, Saint Laurent had already put his finger on it and was ready to turn it into fashion. The kind of street fashion/street glamour that now seems a commonplace everywhere from Manhattan to L.A. (and one of the trademarks of Sex and the City) owes so much to Saint Laurent’s glory days – the days when he segued from couture to the boutique ready-to-wear of the rive gauche stores – the late 1960s and early 1970s when he partied with muses Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux; the time of his fabulously androgynous safari pieces and evening “smoking” ensembles, so memorably photographed by Helmut Newton, among others.

Beyond that, Saint Laurent’s glory was something he shared with other great cultural trend-setters (icons, really) of that particular moment, from rock stars like Dylan, Jagger and the Stones, Lennon-McCartney and the Beatles, the Who, literary lions like Mailer and Vidal; Rudolf Nureyev; to filmmakers like Bergman, Godard, Fellini, Antonioni – a will to turn the mal de siècle into something like a joie de siècle. Saint Laurent embodies something akin to what Susan Sontag ascribed to, among others, Cesare Pavese – the ‘artist as exemplary sufferer’ So much of this period as it transitions into the following decade and the rest of the century is about, not so much idealism, as the failure of idealism. The flip side of Saint Laurent’s glory, the life of urban adventure, of pleasure, that he both sought and embodied, was his intense vulnerability – the ‘demons’ and often painful solitariness of his creative process; the legacy of a shy boy repressed by a colonial bourgeoisie, conventional mores, scarred by the brutality of the military establishment; the demons of his drug addictions. If you look closely enough, you can see it in the clothes (cf., especially, le smoking). Saint Laurent exemplifies the modern creative spirit as simultaneously one of exemplary suffering and exemplary pleasure-seeking. The pleasure is almost a measure of the pain.

One of the first ‘designer’ items I ever purchased for myself (on sale) after college was a pair of Saint Laurent/rive gauche pants, which I wore almost until the fabric was as frail as the lining. They remain the most perfect pair of pants I’ve ever worn (I include the many great pairs of jeans I’ve had over the years). Santayana called dress the "badge of lost innocence" – which doesn’t necessarily imply its opposite, whether an accrual of sophistication, cynicism or wisdom. Saint Laurent’s clothes are nothing if not sophisticated, but they’re much more. There is luxury in the fabric, the cut, drape, fit and details; but that’s only the beginning of their pleasure. The pleasure is in the wearing, even wearing out – a pleasure we pay for dearly; but in the failure of ideals, in the absence of love, it’s sometimes worth protesting our claim on both with the defiance of elegance, the ‘badge’ embodied in, as much as worn on, the sleeve – or the pants or the dress; to stride forward in the face of wisdom and cynicism both, with beauty itself our only shield.

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