Yves Saint Laurent was an icon in the true sense of the word because he was an actual pioneer. He created many items that became fashion staples - the smoking jacket, the pantsuit for women. In fact, his pantsuits were so revolutionary, many women who wore them were actually turned away from hotels and restaurants.
He was also the first designer to popularize ready-to-wear with his Rive Gauche collection. But my favorite fact about this legend is that he was the very first major designer to put black models on the runway ever - and he continued to do so throughout his remarkable career. This fact is mentioned in passing in his obituaries, but it was no small thing to black models and other people of color in the fashion industry. In the picture above, he is shown at the end of a show with Iman and Mounia, one of his star models for nearly a decade. Mr. Saint Laurent was also one of the first designers to allow his fashions to be used in the pioneering Ebony Fashion Fair shows. He is pictured at left with Mrs. Eunice W. Johnson, the producer and director of Ebony Fashion Fair and wife of the late John H. Johnson, founder of the Johnson Publishing empire.
I found the following letter, written by Mr. Saint Laurent (on YSL letterhead) in Black and Beautiful: How Women of Color Changed the Fashion Industry by Barbara Summers, a former Ford model:
When I design and craft my dresses, I need a living model, a moving body. I could never work with a mere wooden dummy because for me clothes must live. I need to work with a woman's body before sending out my clothes into the real world.
Black models are graced with particulary (sic) modern proportions and motions. They are perfectly suited to my needs and have always inspired me enormously. I love the luminosity they lend to fabrics. I feel the depth of colour of their skin brings added intensity to colours.
They have never disappointed me. I love their expression, the lustre in their eyes, their long lines and the irresistible suppleness of their movements.
For me they possess that most magical of a woman's qualities: mystery. Not the outworn mystery of the "femme fatale" but the dynamic mystery of the woman of today.
Yves Saint Laurent
Mr. Saint Laurent, who suffered through depression and alcohol and drug addiction, said during his retirement announcement,“Every man needs aesthetic phantoms in order to exist. I have known fear and the terrors of solitude. I have known those fair-weather friends we call tranquilizers and drugs. I have known the prison of depression and the confinement of hospital. But one day, I was able to come through all of that, dazzled yet sober.”
Yves Saint Laurent, I hope that you truly rest in peace.