From the limelight to the darkness, the life of YSL

You don’t need to be a style connoisseur to know that Yves Saint Laurent was one of the most influential fashion designers of all time. Empowering women through his androgynous looks – with signature pieces such as the tuxedo and the pantsuit – the designer took fashion to the street through his forward-looking ready-to-wear, while keeping haute couture as the jewel of his creative crown.

“Fashions come and go, but style is forever,” was one YSL motto.

What is perhaps lesser known is that the designer suffered his first nervous breakdown at the tender age of 25 and was subsequently diagnosed with manic depression.

Pivoting between private and public life, the limelight and the darkness, “Yves Saint Laurent” is the first biopic to emerge on the French designer following his death in 2008. Based on a biography penned by French journalist Laurence Benaim, the movie is directed by actor-filmmaker Jalil Lespert and stars Pierre Niney in the leading role.   

A multiple love story – between a man and his trade and between two men whose interaction revolutionized an industry – “Yves Saint Laurent” opened the 15th edition of the Francophone Film Festival in Greece in March. Distributed by Feelgood, the movie opened at local cinemas on Thursday.

Is the life of a legend any different from that of regular folk when captured on film?

“It’s about how the small, intimate story meets the big story. It’s an amazing chance for a director to work on a story with plenty of layers,” Lespert told Kathimerini English Edition. “It is about people who fight for their dreams – that’s a core subject here, and to do so you need a historical framework.”

The film provides the right context for this kind of exploration: Born in Oran, Algeria, in 1936, St Laurent spent his early years sketching garments and giving style tips to his mother’s friends who came round for tea. In 1954 he earned the award for best dress design in a competition held by the French fashion industry’s Chambre Syndicale, a distinction that landed him job opportunities in Paris — fellow aspiring designer Karl Lagerfeld won in the coat category that same year.

Hired as assistant to master designer Christian Dior, St Laurent joined the house’s busy atelier team. When Dior died rather unexpectedly in 1957, Yves, 21, was appointed as the venerable house’s creative head.

Shedding any kind of light on St Laurent invariably leads to Pierre Berge. As the designer’s lover and business partner, Berge (played in the biopic by Guillaume Gallienne) remains pivotal both on screen and beyond.

“I wouldn’t have made the film without [Berge] because I needed the Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation to show Saint Laurent’s designs. I couldn’t envisage doing the movie without showing his splendid work,” noted Lespert. “I met with Berge to present myself and I spoke to him about a novel, Jack London’s 1909 ‘Martin Eden,’ about a young proletarian and his struggles to become a writer. I told him that for me the hero represented Yves Saint Laurent, someone who was not predestined to become the man he became, but who really transformed himself, perhaps because he was a genius. I told him I didn’t know how I was going to go about it but that it was about the necessity of doing something with one’s life. I think this struck a chord with him because he said that was exactly how he felt about Saint Laurent.”

Following the designer’s dismissal from Dior, St Laurent and Berge set up fashion shop on rue Spontini, with a first catwalk presentation unveiled in 1962. “You have the talent; I’ll deal with the rest,” Pierre tells Yves in the movie.  

The film traces life in the Left Bank’s rue de Babylone apartment, where works by Brancusi, Picasso, Leger, Matisse and Mondrian became the perfect backdrop for the couple’s initially amorous and, later, turbulent times. The art collection was eventually sold by Berge through Christie’s in 2009. Dubbed the “sale of the century,” the auction fetched 373.9 million euros, a sum which benefited the Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation.

The film also follows a closely knit circle of friends and accomplices, among them Lulu de la Falaise and Betty Catroux, who accompanied St Laurent through his bouts of insecurity and solitude, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as catwalk triumphs, while Berge worked on the logistics of building the YSL fashion empire.

As Niney turns into St Laurent in Lespert’s film, his transformation is hardly surprising to anyone who has been following the Comedie Francaise actor’s career. For four months prior to the shooting Niney explored the designer’s voice and mannerisms. He worked on designing his own “a la Saint Laurent” garments next to a former associate and also worked alongside an Italian designer.

“[Niney] is a well-trained actor, very talented and intelligent; he’s a performer,” said Lespert. “He has the culture of a 25-year-old – he’s fascinated by actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio, for instance – but at the same time is deeply conscious of the fact that acting needs tremendous work and preparation. He worked on touching the fabrics, so that it would became second nature, and met with people who knew Saint Laurent. Berge saw him performing on stage once, but didn’t wish to get further involved.”

Meanwhile, a second biopic released in 2014, “Saint Laurent,” premiered at the recent Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Bertrand Bonello and starring Gaspard Ulliel, the movie did not get the support of Berge, but was backed by the Kering company, the current owner of the Saint Laurent brand.

What is Lespert’s impression of the singular universe of fashion?

“I was born and raised in Paris, I live in the Marais, a fashion neighborhood. I’m not fascinated by the world of fashion. I consider the fashion folk to be like everyone else. Some are nice, some are not, some are pretentious, while others are easygoing. The people I met in this case were the ones chosen by Saint Laurent himself, his seamstresses, people who became his friends, who spent their entire careers working at Saint Laurent. They were his family, joyful people with a sense of humor, who felt they participated in something major and are proud of it. These people named their children after Yves and Pierre.”

Toward the end of the biopic, a catwalk show featuring original garments from the designer’s seminal 1976 Russian Ballets collection offers a glimpse of Saint Laurent’s grandeur. It also captures the power of France’s fashion industry and the beauty of Paris, the world’s perennial capital of style.

“I liked the notion of filming my city. I wanted to show France radiating because, for a while now, similarly to Greece, we are looking inside, afraid of the other, of the foreign, when we should be putting our faith in our abilities. In the end, I was looking for a major French story.”