Covering monsieur Saint Laurent’s shows in the last years of his career was no easy task, as I came to discovere. The garments were still achingly beautiful and the lines, perfect: but what was there left to say that hadn’t been written a hundred times? The young prince of fashion, the revolutionary who had put women in trousers like Chanel put them in black, the pioneer of chic ready-to-wear for Bohemian Parisians, was singing his swan song…
But in truth, he had turned his back a long time ago – at least since the middle of the 70s – on what had made his reputation as an iconoclast, as the couturier of the sexual revolution.
The man France mourns today had become a living monument who lived in hiding, a piece of the national heritage just like the Eiffel Tower: the last of the great couturiers (notwithstanding Karl Lagerfeld’s opinion on the matter: he took exception to Pierre Bergé’s statement, but his true and considerable talents reside elsewhere).
Saint Laurent’s legacy is, of course, not limited to fashion: he leaves us a series of great perfumes, at least one of which, Opium, was as revolutionary in perfumery as le smoking was in fashion.
"Y, Yves Saint Laurent’s invisible dress"
His first fragrance, launched in 1964 – three years after opening his own house – is still firmly anchored in couture codes. In the post-WWII period, every couturier has his/her chypre, from Balmain (Jolie Madame) to Balenciaga (Quadrille) and from Carven (Ma Griffe) to Dior (Miss Dior, Diorling, Diorama), the house where the very young Saint Laurent made his debut and which he headed after the death of its founder. Even mademoiselle Chanel had given in to the trend with a masculine chypre, Pour Monsieur.
Y is in many ways the ultimate expression of this style: the very quintessence of chypre, itself a quintessence of couture perfumery at the time. Held up by its bergamot-labdanum-oak moss structure like a couture suit is by its corseted construction, as dry and cool as a summer wool, Y has the bourgeois chic of a pretty Parisian who hasn’t run wild yet with the Swinging Sixties.
"Rive Gauche is not a perfume for subdued women"
It is only after having freed himself from the shackles of pure couture to start his ready-to-wear line (in 1966, the year in which he would also design the first tuxedo suit for women), that Yves Saint Laurent launches a fragrance that reflects his freewheeling, seductive image. The French slogan of Rive Gauche (1971) is: “Rive Gauche is not a perfume for subdued women”. The elegant predator displayed in the ads – a scarlet-nailed hand smashing a bottle of Rive Gauche against a glass table, a playful redhead chatting up a man on a café terrace – is his tuxedo-wearing woman, appropriating masculine boldness without losing her feminity.
Inspired by Paco Rabanne’s Calandre, which smells of sex on a car hood, Rive Gauche -- composed by Jacques Polge when he still worked for Roure Laboratories, before his Chanel tenure – is an aldehydic floral in the tradition initiated by Chanel N°5, half a century earlier. But the codes of couture elegance are shaken up by the mocking, ballsy metallic and tarry notes that liven up the classic rose heart.
Yves Saint Laurent once said that if Chanel had given women their freedom, he had given them power. Rive Gauche is a fragrance for women who wear the pants, women who drive, women who flirt openly and freely.
"Opium, for those addicted to Yves Saint Laurent"
Conversely, Opium (1977), despite its transgressive allure, expressed Yves Saint Laurent’s retreat towards exotic, unreal dream worlds. Stating he wanted a fragrance for “the empress of China”, he abandoned the Left Bank and its liberated Parisiennes.
Admittedly, Opium would not have been possible without the counterculture of artificial paradises discovered by the couturier in the 60s, along with Marrakesh. But the woman “addicted to Yves Saint Laurent” has dropped the keys to power to lean back languidly on the gold-embroidered cushions of his Chinese den, where she rests after wild nights at Studio 54 or Le Palace. Yves Saint Laurent had presented, the previous year, his sumptuous “Russian Ballet” collection: with it, couture becomes a spectacle, breaking away from the daily life of women to set off for imaginary lands, and swapping freedom for addiction… Opium, an undeniable success in both marketing and perfumery, marks the end of the sexual liberation era, after a last, hedonistic fling.
"All of Paris in a perfume"
The third iconic perfume of the house, the grand Paris, a bouquet of roses emphasized by relatively new molecules, damascones (isolated in 1967, synthesized in 1972, and used for the first time in perfumery in Guerlain’s Nahéma). Damascones have the property of boosting the smell of roses: they make them burst into a spectacular bouquet. Sophia Grojsman, then a young perfumer at IFF, is chose to compose a “very nostalgic” perfume, according to Yves Saint Laurent’s instructions. She underlines her giant rose – as outsized as 80s shoulder pads – with a touch of violet. The result would be old-fashioned if it weren’t for the incredible power of the sillage.
In a way, Paris expressed the transformation of Yves Saint Laurent into an institution. From then on, the city and the couturier became one: he was the very epitome of Paris, just as the Eiffel Tower shown in the ads for Paris, the fragrance… Choosing the rose, the very symbol of romantic love and of sweet smells – don’t we say “It doesn’t smell of roses” to talk about stink? – reinforced this option. Yves Saint Laurent, once a groundbreaker, appropriates the codes of romantic, bourgeois femininity. The Yves Saint Laurent suit, with its padded shoulders, is a staple of the 80s: so is Paris.
"Champagne, the perfume of success"
The last great feminine fragrance of Yves Saint Laurent composed under the couturier’s tenure is yet another bid to identify the couturier with the essence of Frenchness. Champagne, launched in 1993 and rechristened Yvresse (a word play on “ivresse”, “intoxication”, with Saint Laurent’s trademark “Y”) after a lawsuit by winegrowers, is a fruity chypre whose overripe notes are a far cry from the wine it claims as an inspiration. According to Luca Turin (in his first, French language guide), it comes much closer to the sweet, expensive Meursault.
This slightly decadent chypre is the last breath of an intellectual genre initiated with Coty Chypre over eight decades earlier, of which Y was probably the last non-referential utterance. Saint Laurent’s own Opium had already outmoded the genre: aquatic non-perfumes like L’Eau d’Issey or gigantic gourmands like Angel (both from 1992) thrust Champagne into the nostalgic realm of überfeminine fragrances.
The Champagne woman is just as nostalgic, dripping with red sequins against a red backdrop of theatre curtains: a diva. The first slogan is “The Perfume of Success”. Later, after being forbidden to use the name Champagne and before having re-launched under the name Yvresse, the fragrance was promoted as “My perfume, a tribute to women who sparkle”, then, alluding to the lawsuit but also to Opium’s provocative reputation, “Women adore the forbidden”…
It was by playing on this attraction for the forbidden, for transgression – in fashion and in perfumery – that Yves Saint Laurent built his stellar reputation: his myth. But these transgressions were expressed at the very moment in which women dared to push forward; the moment in which they could dare to do so without risking too much. Yves Saint Laurent, who was mischievous despite his crippling timidity, never wanted to put women in harm’s way.
Image: Yves Saint Laurent photographed by Jean-Loup Sieff (1971)