What I found fascinating about Yves Saint Laurent, who died Sunday in Paris at 71, is not so much his couture house, which was acquired by Gucci in 1999, but the steps that led to the establishment of that house in the first place.

In 1954, Saint Laurent was hired by the house of Christian Dior, and when Dior himself died three years later, Saint Laurent assumed control of Dior, not at all an uncomfortable position to be in.

But in 1960, Saint Laurent was drafted: he was shipped to Algeria, where a guerrilla war for independence from the French had been going on for years. Although the land was familiar to him — in fact, he’d been born in Oran, on Algeria’s Mediterranean coast — he wouldn’t be there long: after less than a month, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was returned to France for treatment.

Dior, meanwhile, had replaced Saint Laurent with Marc Bohan; Saint Laurent, believing that his job would have been held for him, sued Dior for breach of contract. The French courts upheld the suit, and Saint Laurent set up a rival couture house, which would bear his name. The business side of YSL was handled by Pierre Bergé, then Saint Laurent’s romantic partner; after they broke up in 1976, Bergé continued to look after the business. (Everyone’s ex should be so understanding.)

At his retirement in 2002, Saint Laurent observed:

I participated in the transformation of my era. I did it with clothes, which is surely less important than music, architecture, painting … but whatever it’s worth, I did it.

The YSL ready-to-wear line continues, under Gucci management; Stefano Pilati oversees design.

(With thanks to James Joyner.)

1 comment

  1. Ron »

    3 June 2008 · 4:53 pm

    I had no idea he had such a fascinating history. And his short lived stint in the French Army might have been a lucky thing for him (if things like that can be lucky) since the Algerian war turned out to be such a nasty little guerilla affair.

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