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Sheer elegance: Yves Saint Laurent retrospective is a "mind-boggling" journey through fashion & art

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The smoking jacket Photo by A. Guirkinger/© Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris
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Yves Saint Laurent, short cocktail dress, tribute to Piet Mondrian, haute couture collection, fall-winter 1965. Ecru wool jersey encrusted with black, red, yellow and blue Photo by A. Guirkinger/© Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris
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Yves Saint Laurent, short evening coat, haute couture collection, spring-summer 1971, green fox fur Photo by A. Guirkinger/© Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris
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Behind the Scenes — shoes everywhere Courtesy of Denver Art Museum
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The collision of colors Photo by A. Guirkinger/© Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris
News_Donae Cangelosi Chramosta_Yves Saint Laurent_Denver Art Museum_March 2012_YSL Tribute to Vincent Van Gogh
Yves Saint Laurent, short evening ensemble, tribute to Vincent Van Gogh, haute couture collection, spring-summer 1988. Jacket embroidered with sequins and pearls, green crepe blouse and purple crepe skirt Photo by A. Guirkinger/© Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris
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A worker at the Denver Art Museum unpacks a piece for the Yves Saint Laurent show. Courtesy of Denver Art Museum
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The clothing must be handled with care. Courtesy of Denver Art Museum
News_Donae Cangelosi Chramosta_Yves Saint Laurent_Denver Art Museum_March 2012_the smoking jacket
News_Donae Cangelosi Chramosta_Yves Saint Laurent_Denver Art Museum_March 2012_YSL tribute to Mondrian
News_Donae Cangelosi Chramosta_Yves Saint Laurent_Denver Art Museum_March 2012_YSL La collection du scandale-short evening coat
News_Donae Cangelosi Chramosta_Yves Saint Laurent_Denver Art Museum_March 2012_Behind the Scenes_shoes
News_Donae Cangelosi Chramosta_Yves Saint Laurent_Denver Art Museum_March 2012_The collisions of colors
News_Donae Cangelosi Chramosta_Yves Saint Laurent_Denver Art Museum_March 2012_YSL Tribute to Vincent Van Gogh
News_Donae Cangelosi Chramosta_Yves Saint Laurent_Denver Art Museum_March 2012_Behind the Scenes
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DENVER — Paris. Madrid. Denver. An unlikely lineup, that is until you meet the amazing director of the Denver Art Museum, Christoph Heinrich. While traveling in Paris during the summer of 2010, Heinrich waited two hours to view Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective at the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. 

Heinrich said it was such a “mind boggling” journey through history, art and fashion, he was compelled to immediately begin negotiating with the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent to bring the retrospective to Denver, the only United States venue to show this incredible exhibit.

Now the fruits of his labors are paying off for the Mile High City and all those who make the journey to The Denver Art Museum (DAM) through July 8. This sweeping retrospective of the designer’s 40 years of creativity features a dazzling selection of 200 haute couture outfits along with numerous photographs, drawings and films illustrating Saint Laurent’s entire creative output.

 This sweeping retrospective of the designer’s 40 years of creativity features a dazzling selection of 200 haute couture outfits along with numerous photographs, drawings and films illustrating Saint Laurent’s entire creative output. 

Curated by Florence Müller and overseen by Bergé, Saint Laurent's longtime business partner and collaborator, the retrospective is organized thematically, including multifaceted presentations melding design and art to explore the full expanse of his career, from his first days at Dior in 1958 through the splendor of his final runway collection in 2002.

“We’re thrilled to bring the stunning style and design of Saint Laurent to the United States,” Heinrich said. “His designs revolutionized the fashion world just as the masters he drew inspiration from revolutionized the art world. This exhibition showcases the exquisite designs of an artist.”

The DAM retrospective is a bit more “edgy” that the Paris exhibition, with a full staircase of  stunning couture pieces that will “knock your socks off," Heinrich said. 

Empowering women

During his 40-year career Saint Laurent transformed the female wardrobe by reinterpreting men's clothing such as the tuxedo, the trouser suit, shorts and the Safari jacket from men's clothing, empowering women in the process. He is significantly important in forming the way we dress as a woman today. Many credit Coco Chanel with changing the way women dress in the first 50 years of the last century and YSL with transforming their wardrobe in the last 50 years.

Saint Laurent created a gender revolution by allowing women to express themselves freely, melding the flair of a man’s suit with the seductiveness of woman’s clothing. He bent and sometimes broke the rules of what women were expected to wear.

“This exhibition demonstrates the impact of Saint Laurent’s work on the history of fashion and the present-day relevance of his style,” said exhibition curator Müller. “His creations achieved an ingenious symbiotic relationship between setting style and recognizing popular trends that made them not only wardrobe necessities, but also reflected women’s changing role in society.”

The exhibition begins with a display of Saint Laurent’s designs for Dior, including the 1958 “Trapeze” collection, anticipating the freedom movement of the 1960s.

YSL drew inspiration from the World War II era in the Scandal Collection (1971). His travels — some real, some imaginary — through Africa, China, India, Japan, Morocco, Spain and Russia, spurred him on to incorporate exotic materials, fur and feathers into the collections.

Art and fashion 

Saint Laurent launched a 1965 collection inspired by Piet Mondrian, the early 20th century painter known for his distinctive style of lines and bold color combinations on flat surfaces. Mondrian’s work clearly inspired Saint Laurent in the first of many of the designer’s intersections with the art world. Just as an artist does, he looked at what came before him.

"My primary concern has always been respect for my craft, which is not exactly an art, but which depends on an artist for its existence," he once said.

 The first ever “Le Smoking” (the French term for tuxedo) from 1966 is paired with a variety of other tuxedos, each representative of a fundamental work by the designer.

 His fans included Catherine Deneuve, Princess Grace of Monaco, Nan Kempner, Paloma Picasso, Diana Vreeland and H.R.H. Duchess of Windsor. Although he was an incredibly shy person he had very close relationships with the women of his time. In 1966 while making Belle De Jour, Deneuve met Saint Laurent and became his lifelong muse. His designs became some of the most celebrated of their time and are referenced time and again in fashion and pop culture.

The magic of the evening and fashion is the focus of "The Last Ball" section, a succession of exquisite evening dresses from the glory days of haute couture  — complete with a red carpet.

Visitors are given a close look at 40 years of Saint Laurent's creations through a wall of more than 30 tuxedos. The first ever “Le Smoking” (the French term for tuxedo) from 1966 is paired with a variety of other tuxedos, each representative of a fundamental work by the designer.

Saint Laurent was the first recognized designer to use color blocking. Many current designers using combinations of pink and orange draw from his inspiration as a “master of color and balance,” Heinrich said. 

In the "Colors of Saint Laurent' Gallery, guests move through the collision of colors YSL famously used in his designs, with vibrant examples from his collections and hundreds of fabric samples.

The foundation retained pieces from each runway show. The designer died in 2009; the sale of the his art and collectables at Christie's in 2009 raked in $484 million. The proceeds endowed the foundation to preserve and protect these pieces for centuries.

The Denver Art Museum is providing a variety of special and private tours including wine, fashion and perfume pairings.

For Texans traveling to the exhibit, Denver hotels, including the Four Season, JW Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton, have created Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective VIP Packages. For more information visit denverartmuseum.org or call 720-865-5000.

Donae Cangelosi Chramosta, the owner of The Vintage Contessa, writes about travel, design and fashion.

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