Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections (2019)
Words by Violet Ames
Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections (2019)
The urge that many of us have to see behind the proverbial curtain to peer into the inner world of the lives of the rich and famous, particularly those whose genius and esteem is shrouded in relative mystery, has by now been well-documented. Social media has opened the door for us, the public, to be conscious observers. We’ve seen this with the advent of celebrities on social media, and now especially in the era of ‘casual instagram’, the perfectly curated slice of life depiction is now the new centre stage…
In a pre-internet age, celebrities were mainly confined to tabloids, newspapers, and radio (shocking!).Your run of the mill debutante or Hollywood starlet might grace these covers, but the big movers and shakers of fashion and culture were relatively untouchable, almost like gods. A concept that Laura Mulvey introduces in her widely praised text, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), is that in the age of modernity (circa mid-twentieth century), as orthodoxy became passé, in came logic and reason. And with that, the gods and goddesses of the church were traded in for the creative geniuses of visual culture. One such ‘god’ whose artistry aligned with this aesthetic of modernity (who literally set the tone for women’s trousers) is the eponymous Yves Saint Laurent.
The documentary, Celebration—which was released with contention on the part of his business/life partner Pierre Bergé—illustrates the famed designer in his final days. The famed brand, often referred to in its shortened form, Y.S.L., by beauty gurus alike is so well-known that it’s easy to forget that behind the label lies a real person.
There’s a title card at the beginning of The Last Collections that succinctly encapsulates this bygone era of craftsmanship. “In Paris in the 20th century, haute couture houses bear the name of the designers who created them. The designer is the heart of a house who accompanies and supports him. The model is now over. Yves Saint Laurent was the last of these great couturiers.”
We see this obsession everywhere, from the treatment of Coco Chanel’s life and biography, to the way that (even if satirically) House of Gucci (2021) brought mainstream attention to the dynamics and underpinnings of what it takes to operate a fashion house. But unlike these larger than life personalities, whose personas almost become embedded into the brand, Saint Laurent has a more detached, soft-spoken kind of pride. The artistry in his designs almost seem to speak for itself; and moreover is a reflection of the labor-intensive handiwork that the in-house seamstresses perform.
Interspersed between shots of daily life, rife with fittings, model test-runs, and of Saint Laurent’s beloved french bulldog—Moujik, are cuts of an interview between him and a French journalist. They sit across from each other in front of the propped open wide floor-to-ceiling windows. When she poses a question, he looks thoughtfully out the window, puffing on his cigarette. There is no self-satisfied smugness nor loud declarations that we see in other 20th century icons (Warhol and Karl Lagerfield come to mind.) You can see him realize that the end of his career is dawning, but he approaches this with cautioned distance.
The bulk of the film seems to center around a slice of life approach. We see the daily comings and goings amidst the YSL Avenue George V office, and while it is initially exhilarating—shots of the seamstresses consumed by their craft and desire to create perfection is breathtaking (Dior actually similarly shows such shots of their atelier on their Instagram)—it ultimately becomes mundane and almost ordinary. With the exception of main plot points, such as the runway show on the literal grass of the 1998 Final World Cup and the presentation of Saint Laurent’s CFDA Lifetime Achievement award— the pacing is rather slow. And with this, the film seems to communicate that beyond the glitz and glamour of la belle vie, there is a sense of the unavoidable mundane, which perhaps is merely a symptom of the human condition.
The way that Yves and Pierre operate together is at times paternalistic. With Pierre acting as the sort of guiding voice/hand through much of their daily comings and goings. It makes sense, when the couple met in 1958, Berge, in awe of Saint Laurent’s creative vision, from then on he took on the role of being his campaigner. The two split in 1976, but remained in business together from then on.
There were few moments which stood out most to me for being off kilter, particularly those involving the casting of models. For all the credit that Saint Laurent is given for promoting diverse models and for expanding the range of what femininity can mean—that yes, trousers and a smoking jacket can indeed be sexy while also empowering, the categorizing of these bodies in real time is a bit unsettling. Models who are unanimously thin and strikingly tall are sorted dismissively and at times outwardly told that they are unattractive. It’s in these moments that we are reminded of the monolithic traditions of fashion and that at the end of the day, no matter how artful or awesome it may be, it is ultimately a material product of capital.
Celebration is certainly not the gushing portrayal of Yves Saint Laurent or the fashion house that Pierre Bergé may have preferred, but I think it is because of these accidental quirks and overshares that make it seem more honest, and thus engaging. If you identify as a fashion fangirl, be sure to put this on while you curl up at home in your sharpest pantsuit. Pro tip: take a shot every time there is a fitting on screen or somebody looks stressed.