Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent (1 August 1936 – 1 June 2008), known as Yves Saint Laurent, was an Algerian-born French fashion designer, and is regarded as one of the greatest names in fashion history. In 1985, Caroline Rennolds Milbank wrote, "The most consistently celebrated and influential designer of the past twenty-five years, Yves Saint Laurent can be credited with both spurring the couture's rise from its sixties ashes and with finally rendering ready-to-wear reputable." He is also credited with having introduced the tuxedo suit for women and was known for his use of non-European cultural references, and non-white models.
In 1953, Saint Laurent submitted three sketches to a contest for young fashion designers, organized by the International Wool Secretariat. He won first place and was invited to attend the awards ceremony in Paris, in December of that year. While he and his mother were in Paris, they met Michel de Brunhoff, editor-in-chief of the French edition of Vogue magazine. De Brunhoff, a considerate person known for encouraging new talent, was impressed by the sketches Saint Laurent brought with him and suggested he become a fashion designer. Saint Laurent would eventually consider a course of study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the council which regulates the haute couture industry and provides training to its employees. Saint Laurent followed his advice and, leaving Oran for Paris after graduation, began his studies there and eventually graduated as a star pupil. Later that same year, he entered the International Wool Secretariat competition again and won, beating out his friend Fernando Sánchez and young German student Karl Lagerfeld. Shortly after his win, he brought a number of sketches to de Brunhoff who recognized close similarities to sketches he had been shown that morning by Christian Dior. Knowing that Dior had created the sketches that morning and that the young man could not have seen them, de Brunhoff sent him to Dior, who hired him on the spot.
Although Dior recognized his talent immediately, Saint Laurent spent his first year at the House of Dior on mundane tasks, such as decorating the studio and designing accessories. Eventually, however, he was allowed to submit sketches for the couture collection; with every passing season, more of his sketches were accepted by Dior. In August 1957, Dior met with Saint Laurent's mother to tell her that he had chosen Saint Laurent to succeed him as designer. His mother later said that she had been confused by the remark, as Dior was only 52 years old at the time. Both she and her son were surprised when in October of that year Dior died at a health spa in northern Italy of a massive heart attack.
In 1957, Saint Laurent found himself at age 21 the head designer of the House of Christian Dior S.A.. His spring 1958 collection almost certainly saved the enterprise from financial ruin; the straight line of his creations, a softer version of Dior's New Look, catapulted him to international stardom with what would later be known as the "trapeze dress." Others included in the collection were dresses with a narrow shoulder and flared gently at the bottom. At this time, he shortened his surname to Saint Laurent because the international press found his hyphenated triple name difficult to spell.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the firm popularized fashion trends such as the beatnik look; safari jackets for men and women; tight trousers; tall, thigh-high boots; and arguably the most famous classic tuxedo suit for women in 1966, Le Smoking. The 1965 Mondrian collection was particularly renowned. Saint Laurent also started mainstreaming the idea of wearing silhouettes from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
He was the first French couturier to come out with a full prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) line, although Alicia Drake credits this move with Saint Laurent's wish to democratize fashion point out that other couture houses were preparing prêt-à-porter lines at the same time – the House of Yves Saint Laurent merely announced its line first. The first of the company's Rive Gauche stores, which sold the prêt-à-porter line, opened on the rue de Tournon in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, on 26 September 1966. The first customer was Catherine Deneuve.
Many of his collections were positively received by both his fans and the press, such as the autumn 1965 collection, which introduced Le Smoking tailored tuxedo suit. Other collections raised controversy, such as his spring 1971 collection, which was inspired by 1940s fashion. Some felt it romanticized the German occupation of France during World War II, which he did not experience, while others felt it brought back the unattractive utilitarianism of the time. The French newspaper France Soir called the spring 1971 collection "Une grande farce!"
In 1983, Saint Laurent became the first living fashion designer to be honoured by the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a solo exhibition. In 2001, he was awarded the rank of Commander of the Légion d'Honneur by French president Jacques Chirac. Saint Laurent retired in 2002 and became increasingly reclusive, living at his homes in Normandy and Morocco with his pet French Bulldog Moujik.
Saint Laurent died 1 June 2008 of brain cancer at his residence in Paris. According to The New York Times, a few days prior, he and Bergé had been joined in a same-sex civil union known as a Pacte civil de solidarité (PACS) in France. When Saint Laurent was diagnosed as terminal with only one or two weeks left to live, Bergé and the doctor mutually decided that it would be better for him not to know his impending death. Bergé said, "I have the belief that Yves would not have been strong enough to accept that." Saint Laurent was survived by his mother and sisters; his father had died in 1988.