Last month I visited Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style, a sumptuous fashion retrospective at SAM, my local museum. While I never pass up a chance to commune with sartorial artifacts, it is very difficult to compete with the offerings back East, though when it comes to fashion exhibits, SAM has not let me down. I went to Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion three times, and improbably, it was better every time. Thoughtful curation and a perfectly balanced mix of backstory, multimedia and inventive staging burned that show into my brain, and I'm happy to say this recent offering was just as striking.
I confess, I didn't know much about Yves Saint Laurent going in, the person or the brand. Besides knowing that Hedi Slimane had recently stepped down as creative director and a handful of iconic pieces, I could not pick the YSL woman out of line-up. This blindspot might be due to the fact that the line is aggressively elegant, grown-up and womanly in a way I can't quite relate to. I'm more at home with the playful and at times twisted gamine garments from the likes of Rei Kawakubo, but as I approach my mid-30s, I'm beginning to see the power of femme.
Monsieur Laurent would never be called avant-garde, credited with saving the house of Dior with the highly accessible (and commercially successful) trapeze silhouette. There is glamour, to be sure, but it was always grounded and I loved reading that models would wear garments in progress around the atelier to verify their comfort and elegance in action. Some of my favorite ensembles on display were layered, commuter-friendly combinations with a soupçon of faraway chic inspired by the Ballets Russes. The burgeoning Pop Art movement inspired intarsia-knit sheaths in confident brights. A sparkling display of "fantasy" jewelry was surprisingly modern, with ornate ear cuffs daring me to adorn with abandon.
Hanging behind all the well-appointed mannequin army was a passel of hand-drawn croquis. Seeing the pre-digital, boldly scrawled sketches with colorful snippets of fabrics and trims is just the sort of peek behind the curtain that bolsters me creatively, reminding me that the gorgeous finished object is never the whole story, that no one produces beauty without a hell of a struggle, and a plan of attack.
I left the exhibit a newly converted fan, but of the man more than his work. I admire how well his collections mirrored and even pushed the cultural conversation, and how willingly he grappled with and even relied on what he called 'aesthetic phantoms'. I've never been one to design in a vacuum, and I'm not sure anyone truly can. Yves had an apparent love for women, favoring practical polish over frivolity, clothing working women who also take the reins in their romantic pursuits. A sheer dress that bares all may have scandalized in 1968 but in 2017 we're still campaigning to #freethenipple. When I wore my macro Loopy Mango dress to Reykjavik Fashion Festival, I decided to go sans bra. While I worried I'd feel overexposed, I quickly forgot to care. Instead of cowering all day, I felt fully female and perhaps just a bit confrontational, a rush I'm sure YSL-clad ladies know well.