Today we’re excited to share some curatorial insight on Yves Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear line Rive Gauche, from exhibition co-curator Emma McClendon. For more information on Rive Gauche, check out the essays in the book Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s.

Emma McClendon,  co-curator of Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s, and assistant curator at MFIT

Emma McClendon, co-curator of Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s, and assistant curator at MFIT

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On September 19, 1966, Yves Saint Laurent opened a ready-to-wear boutique in Paris called “Saint Laurent Rive Gauche.” This marked the first time a couturier successfully launched a ready-to-wear line in France. Situated in a former antiques store in the student-dominated area of the Seine’s Left Bank, the appropriately named store (Rive Gauche is literally “left bank” in French) was a complete departure from the grand and gilded interior of his haute couture salon. Rive Gauche was an immediate success, with some customers waiting up to three hours simply to purchase items. Within a matter of weeks, it was clear Rive Gauche was the new sanctum of Paris youth culture.

Wesley, photograph of Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent, and Loulou de la Falaise at the opening of the Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutique in London, 1969, Wesley/Getty Images

Wesley, photograph of Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent, and Loulou de la Falaise at the opening of the Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutique in London, 1969, Wesley/Getty Images

Today, Yves Saint Laurent is best remembered for his haute couture. It is widely thought that he would create dreamy, fantastical looks in couture and then translate them into less expensive, ready-to-wear versions. This view has led most scholars, curators, and fashion enthusiasts to overlook Rive Gauche as merely a watered-down version of Saint Laurent’s couture.

In actuality, during the 1970s, Rive Gauche was the site of Saint Laurent’s most prolific creative production. It was a laboratory of sorts, where he could experiment freely with different styles, looks, and sources of inspiration, away from the pressures of the haute couture salon. In fact, many of his most famous collections began in Rive Gauche, including his Russian- and Chinese-inspired collections of 1976 and 1977.

(left) Yves Saint Laurent ensemble, printed silk, 1977, France, 2006.35.2, Gift of Francine Gray(right) Saint Laurent Rive Gauche ensemble, printed fuschia silk satin and wool, 1976, France, 78.57.9, Gift of Ethell Scull

(left) Yves Saint Laurent ensemble, printed silk, 1977, France, 2006.35.2, Gift of Francine Gray
(right) Saint Laurent Rive Gauche ensemble, printed fuschia silk satin and wool, 1976, France, 78.57.9, Gift of Ethell Scull

Rive Gauche was also where Saint Laurent developed his philosophy of wardrobe “essentials.” He presented modern women with a vocabulary of separates that they could mix and match in seemingly endless combinations. This differed significantly from the idea of the “total look” that had dominated high fashion previously.

(left) Saint Laurent Rive Gauche sweater, camel wool and fur, 1973, France,  89.32.6, gift of Catherine Cahill  (right) Yves Saint Laurent ensemble, multi-color wool, silk, and fur, 1972, France, 95.58.1, Gift of Judith Rudner Kessel

(left) Saint Laurent Rive Gauche sweater, camel wool and fur, 1973, France, 89.32.6, gift of Catherine Cahill
(right) Yves Saint Laurent ensemble, multi-color wool, silk, and fur, 1972, France, 95.58.1, Gift of Judith Rudner Kessel

As Saint Laurent himself explained in 1972, “What is modern in clothes today is to have a skirt, pants, shirt, sweater, coat, and raincoat and to mix everything…[but] the parts of the mix cannot be expensive. In couture everything is expensive. With ready-to-wear you can play around with the many parts of clothes and change them. In couture you can’t play with clothes.”1

In June of 1971, Yves Saint Laurent appeared in French ELLE flanked by models wearing nearly identical ensembles – one from his latest haute couture collection, and the other from his ready-to-wear line, Rive Gauche. The article’s title declared, “Yves Saint Laurent choisit le prêt à porter” (“Yves Saint Laurent chooses ready-to-wear”2). Over the course of a multi-page spread illustrated with a series of side-by-side comparisons, Saint Laurent explained that he was now designing his couture along the same lines as his ready-to-wear.

Henri Elwing, photograph of Yves Saint Laurent and models wearing a look from his ready-to-wear collection on the left and a look from his couture collection on the right, French Elle, June 9, 1971

Henri Elwing, photograph of Yves Saint Laurent and models wearing a look from his ready-to-wear collection on the left and a look from his couture collection on the right, French Elle, June 9, 1971

Four months later, Saint Laurent reaffirmed his dedication to Rive Gauche in a television interview, when he announced: “I have chosen to present my fashion through my ready-to-wear rather than through my haute couture…”3 With Rive Gauche, Saint Laurent was able to formulate a distinct style and approach to dressing that formed the core of his brand and became synonymous with the modernity of the 1970s.

1. Yves Saint Laurent, quoted in 1972 interview transcript, Folder 16, Box 10, The Nina Hyde Collection, FIT Special Collections Library.

2. Claude Berthod, “Yves Saint Laurent choisit le prêt a porter” in French Elle, June 9, 1971, p.8-11.

3. Yves Saint Laurent October 1971, quoted in Jéromine Savignon, “The Voyage to Rive Gauche” in Saint Laurent Rive Gauche: Fashion Revolution (New York: Abrams), 2012, p. 44.

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