Dedicated to the legacy of Yves Saint Laurent, this museum glosses over the relationship between creation and commerce
A year after his death from brain cancer in 2008, Yves Saint Laurent topped the Forbes list of dead celebrity earnings. Through the sale of his estate, Saint Laurent posthumously ‘earned’ US$350m, overtaking fellow ‘delebs’ Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and Albert Einstein. Never has being dead been so lucrative. The Forbes list highlights the increasing commercialisation of stars’ estates; in Saint Laurent’s case, a three-day Christie’s auction of 733 art works belonging to him and his companion and business partner, Pierre Bergé, momentarily propelled him to the top of the deleb earnings league. Dubbed the ‘art sale of the century’, it featured paintings by Matisse, Duchamp, Brancusi, Mondrian and de Chirico, and netted €375m, a record for a single-owner collection. Two 18th-century carved rat and rabbit heads that originally adorned the zodiacal fountain of Emperor Qianlong’s Summer Palace sold for €15.74m each. In death, as in life, Yves was still making headlines.
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Ten years earlier, at the 1998 World Cup Final in Paris, the pre-match entertainment featured a parade of 300 models dressed in Saint Laurent creations from different eras. Carla Bruni, the future presidential consort, wore a white dress shaped like a pair of canoodling doves. At the show’s climax, the ranks of immaculately coutured and coiffed models were choreographed, Busby Berkeley style, into the famous interlinked ‘YSL’ logo. As an example of product placement, it was, as the French say, sans pareil. Yves Saint Laurent was France and France was Yves Saint Laurent. His likeness was even engraved on a special edition of franc coins to mark the millennium.
By then, however, France’s ‘last living king’ of couture was burnt out, enervated and depressed, while younger pretenders like Tom Ford were snapping at his heels. In 2002 he announced his retirement from haute couture. ‘I went through much anxiety and many hells’, he said at his valedictory press conference. ‘I knew fear and terrible isolation. Marcel Proust taught me that “the magnificent and pitiful family of neurotics is the salt of the earth”.’ France was shocked, but six years later the king was dead.
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Yet the world is not allowed to forget Yves, the tortured genius who ‘liberated’ women through the trapeze line, the Mondrian shift, Le Smoking, safari suits, pea coats and Ballets Russes excess. Who dressed Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, and Mick and Bianca for their chaotic San Tropez wedding. Who partied with Warhol and was photographed naked by Jeanloup Sieff. Who popularised prêt-à-porter and made high fashion affordable. Who became rich as Croesus, yet was still a deeply disturbed soul, relying, as he put it, on ‘the fake friends of tranquilizers and narcotics’ to get through the day. A martyr to the carnivorous business of fashion, Yves lives on, mummified and memorialised through a hugely profitable afterlife of stuff: clothes, cosmetics, accessories, perfumes and licensing agreements. The protagonist may be gone but the brand endures and the tills keep tinkling.
Saint Laurent’s afterlife has been given further impetus by the establishment of an eponymous foundation and two museums in Paris and Marrakesh, dedicated to his life and work. In the decade since his death, Pierre Bergé has been carefully curating Saint Laurent’s myth and memory, organising retrospectives and generally taking care of business, as he did when Yves was alive. Since the founding of Maison Saint Laurent in 1961, Bergé’s role in establishing and securing the commercial framework for optimising Saint Laurent’s talents cannot be overestimated. ‘It’s up to him how he does it’, said Bergé in a 1995 interview with design critic Alice Rawsthorn. ‘If he needs anything, he asks for it and I pay the bills.’
This enviable symbiosis of commerce and creation saved Saint Laurent from having to grub around for financial backing, freeing him to focus on design. Bergé always found the money for Yves, whether it was to lavish half a million dollars on presenting the 1976 Ballets Russes collection, or entertain 2,800 guests at the Bastille Opéra to mark the 30th anniversary of Maison Saint Laurent. At that point the company was generating three billion francs in annual revenue, with more than 80 per cent coming from the highly lucrative perfume market. But there were more questionable deals, notably in 1993 when Bergé engineered the sale of the Saint Laurent business to Elf Sanofi, the state-controlled French industrial group, for $650m. The high purchase price and huge profits made by Bergé and Saint Laurent came under scrutiny, fuelling suspicion that the deal was orchestrated by then President François Mitterrand as a favour to his close friend Bergé.
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Bergé died in 2017, barely a month before the inauguration of the two YSL museums, his final tribute to his partner, funded by the proceeds of the estate sale. Together, Paris and Marrakesh represent the geographic and atmospheric polarities of Saint Laurent’s life. The Paris museum occupies Saint Laurent’s old atelier in the 16th arrondissement, where the ghostly whiff of the master still lingers in his inner sanctum, just as he left it in 2002.
The Marrakesh satellite is a brand new building, where the first thing you see is a large, gold YSL logo in the entrance courtyard. From the street, now renamed Rue Yves Saint Laurent, it might be just another upscale boutique. The site lies next to the luxuriant Jardin Majorelle and Villa Oasis, which Bergé and Saint Laurent acquired in 1980. Brought up in the Algerian city of Oran during the French colonial era, Saint Laurent was profoundly enamoured of the North African milieu, buying his first Marrakesh bolthole in 1966. He ended up designing most of his collections there and came to loathe Paris and the demands of the catwalk shows.
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In the pantheon of museology, fashion museums occupy a particularly rarefied niche. Yet judging from the popularity of recent V&A shows on luminaries such as Alexander McQueen and Christian Dior (Saint Laurent’s first employer), there is a voracious public appetite for high fashion as spectacle, given added spice by the often equally spectacular lives of its fashionistas. Architecture cannot, and probably should not, compete; the contents will always be more arresting than the container. In Marrakesh, this holds especially true. Here, a necessarily hermetic composition of terrazzo and terracotta, punctuated by courtyards in the Moroccan vernacular, forms a neutral backdrop to the main event: the life and legend of Yves Saint Laurent.
Externally, the museum has the characteristic opacity and impermeability of the medina, with its blind box volumes of exhibition spaces, auditorium, bookshop and subterranean conservation suites. Everything is turned in on itself, away from the searing desert heat and light, except for a café which addresses a courtyard tempered by water and planting. Walls of pinkish terrazzo formed from an aggregate of local stones erupt with geological puissance to meet and meld with a more intricately contrived geometric armature of red terracotta brick, handmade and fired in the northern Moroccan town of Tétouan.
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Musée yves saint laurent studio ko drawings
As if it were a piece of fabric, the woven texture of the brick facade was artfully hand drawn. Parts of the pattern were invented, other motifs allude to historical precedents, including a minaret in Iran. Life-size mock-ups were used to evaluate the effects of sun and shadow at different times of day. Between the terrazzo and brick is a thin band of bush-hammered concrete, which forms part of the building structure and bears the weight of the brick section. A supple curve draws you into the circular entrance courtyard, softening the sense of brute fortification, as does the gleaming gold canopy, pinned like a solitary brooch on a sober jacket.
The architects of this costume drama are Studio KO, a Paris and Marrakesh-based partnership founded by Karl Fournier and Olivier Marty. With a repertoire of houses and interiors – they designed the Chiltern Firehouse in London for hotelier André Balazs – the pair specialises in a kind of luxe rustique for clients whose spending power could get them anything they want. ‘We don’t do sleek’, says Marty, ‘we prefer things that show they’ve been crafted by someone’s hands.’ Trained at Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts, they spent time in Morocco after graduating. A chance meeting with their friend, Hermès creative director Pascale Mussard, at the airport en route home, was the source of their first job – a house for Mussard’s uncle in Tangier. The Hermès connection leveraged access to an insular network of wealthy and aristocratic French expats, contacts that would have been more difficult to secure in Paris. At a lunch given by Marella Agnelli, the grande dame of Italian society hostesses, Fournier and Marty were introduced to Pierre Bergé. From there, things took off.
Since Saint Laurent’s death, the foundation has amassed some 5,000 garments and 15,000 accessories, providing ample raw material for the tourist hordes of YSL aficionados. Marrakesh holds 250 pieces, rotated every four months according to Bergé’s instructions. Within the black box of the main exhibition space, dazzling couture creations are mounted on rows of slender mannequins. The effect is like a flamboyant yet curiously inert cocktail party. Elsewhere, jewellery and accessories are arrayed in glass vitrines, like saints’ relics awaiting veneration from the faithful.
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Superficially, there are parallels between the design of buildings and clothes: cut, fit, function, proportion and materiality, all freighted with meaning and ideas. Both fashion and architecture are also in thrall to the trope of the lone male genius, suavely sketching incipient masterpieces that are then brought into being by squads of loyal but anonymous cadres. ‘Fashions fade, style is eternal’ is a much quoted Saint Laurent aphorism, but the modern fashion business is predicated less glamorously on the skewering of human insecurity and the relentless commercial churn of acquisition and disposal, with the commensurate exploitation of people and resources. On a larger scale, and with more profound consequences, architecture is equally motivated by such reductive instincts.
Within the museum’s hushed and tranquillised precincts, its marbled interiors are coolly luxurious, like a silk lining, and there is little intimation of the outside world’s existential blare and clamour. These are, after all, fashion’s Olympian heights and the atmosphere is suitably rarefied. Clothes magically morph into being from the sinuous pencil lines of Saint Laurent’s sketches and fabric samples; there is no sense of their protracted processes or sites of construction. A typical couture dress could take thousands of hours to make, but we do not get to see behind the curtain. Instead, we are simply spectators at an unending catwalk, always looking and never touching. It is an utterly singular vision. ‘Yves met only one person in his life, and that was himself’, Pierre Bergé once said. ‘And he is bored with this person, but his narcissism and his megalomania meant he couldn’t choose anyone else.’
Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakesh, Morocco
Architect: Studio KO
Design team: Karl Fournier and Olivier Marty
This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today