Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News, Reviews  |  July 10, 2018

Exhibition Review – Inaugural Display at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris

Eanna Morrison Barrs

The Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris is one of two museums that opened last year dedicated to the work of the fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent. This museum is situated at the designer’s former couture house at the hôtel particulier on 5 Avenue Marceau, while the other is in Marrakech. The museum joins a slew of recent fashion museums dedicated to a single designer or brand, including the Cristobal Balenciaga Museum, the Christian Dior Museum and Garden, the Ferragamo Museum and the Gucci Museum. These museums are often brand-identity projects that serve to preserve the history and legacy of the designer or brand, a trend for memorialization and hagiography which can also be found in many recent fashion exhibitions.

The visit begins with an introductory video on the life and work of Yves Saint Laurent. Here, a narrator introduces him as the legendary designer who succeeded Christian Dior at the young age of 21. The video highlights the success of Saint Laurent’s own brand, where he created iconic pieces such as Le Smoking, the jumpsuit and the safari jacket. The whole exhibition continues in a similar vein, displaying some of the designer’s most iconic and celebrated designs, such as the aforementioned pieces (Fig. 1), his “exoticisms” inspired by Africa and the East (Fig. 2) and garments drawing upon the work of famous artists (Fig. 3), among others. These garments are exceptionally beautiful and skillfully made examples from Yves Saint Laurent’s haute couture collections. Visitors are given a rare opportunity to get a close-up view of many of Saint Laurent’s designs, an opportunity which was previously only available to fashion industry insiders or haute couture clients. In particular, a case displaying two heavily embroidered jackets showcases the "savoir-faire" of haute couture, allowing for close examination of the handwork and stitching of the embroiderer François Lesage (Fig. 4-5).

After visiting this museum, I was left with an impression that this exhibition was like stepping into a life-sized coffee table book. Similar to a coffee table book, this exhibition favours a visual impression over its content. A critical analysis is exempted from the narrative of idealized biographical information, the highlights of the designer’s oeuvre, and the assertion of the couturier’s creative genius. Glossy printed pages are substituted for glossy pedestals, upon which the designer’s most celebrated creations stand. Furthermore, insights into the personal life of Yves Saint Laurent and what appeared to be a carefully curated look inside the designer’s studio (Fig. 6), add to the one-sided narrative of the exhibition, which attempted to celebrate and memorialize Yves Saint Laurent, and his partner, Pierre Bergé.

As the first temporary exhibition at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris comes to a close in September, I have higher hopes for future exhibitions at the museum. Other fashion exhibitions in Paris this year featuring the work of Azzedine Alaïa (Azzedine Alaïa: “Je suis couturier”, closed June 10, 2018) and Martin Margiela (Margiela / Galliera, 1989-2009 and Margiela, les années Hermès), were far more successful at being highly engaging and educational, while maintaining a celebration of the creativity and skill of the designer. With thousands of garments, accessories and sketches in the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris’ collection, and a body of work that has been hugely influential in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I hope to see these artifacts and the designer’s biography given the critical attention of fashion scholarship without the myth-making and self-promotion of the Saint Laurent brand.

The exhibition is on from October 3, 2017 - September 9, 2018.

  • Fig. 1: (From left to right) Le Smoking, the trench coat, the jumpsuit, the safari jacket
  • Fig. 2: The “exoticisms”
  • Fig. 3: Garments inspired by artists
  • Fig. 4: Embroidered jacket
  • Fig. 5: Embroidered jacket
  • Fig. 6: Yves Saint Laurent’s studio