Feted as a visionary but tormented genius who reshaped the silhouette of 20th century women, Yves Saint Laurent comes back to life this week in the first biopic of the man known as the “prince of fashion”.
The film by French actor-turned-director Jalil Lespert focuses on 20 years of the designer’s life between 1956 and 1976 that saw him burst onto the fashion scene — first at Dior then at the head of his own house — and ascend to fame and fortune.
It is also a love story — that of Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge, whose up-and-down relationship reveals the “dark, sombre face” of a man who at times plunged into depression, drugs and alcohol, and was unfaithful.
Saint Laurent, who died in 2008 aged 71, dominated the international couture scene from the swinging 1960s, revolutionising women’s wardrobes with a new androgynous style that mirrored women’s push for a stronger social role.
He is also widely credited as the first to employ black models, and British supermodel Naomi Campbell in 2008 paid tribute to a man she said promoted women of colour on the runway.
Lespert, 37, told AFP he wanted to “tell a love story and at the same time a story about people who fight for their dreams”.
He pointed to “the historic and national importance” of the designer “through his creations, men’s clothes — trousers, tuxedos, reefer jackets — which he democratised for women at a time when French society was changing”.
For Lespert, the designer embodied “absolute timidity, extreme elegance.”
‘Absolute timidity, extreme elegance’
Saint Laurent is played by 24-year-old actor Pierre Niney, a rising star who joined the prestigious Comedie Francaise theatre when he was just 21.
Tall, slim, and wearing Saint Laurent’s trademark black-rimmed glasses, Niney morphs into the six foot (1.85 metres) designer in the film.
In order to play the fashion legend, he first read up about Saint Laurent to get his head round a person he knew very little about.
Four-and-a-half months later, he was taught fashion design and drawing. Niney also underwent coaching to imitate Saint Laurent’s soft, halting voice.
“I worked with a woman who drew for Saint Laurent for 15 years. I also learnt to recognise the… coded vocabulary of workshops,” he said.
Berge is played by Guillaume Gallienne, a French actor who is also part of the Comedie Francaise.
Lespert said he wanted two actors who had received classical theatre training to better encapsulate the language used at the time, and Saint Laurent’s specific way of speaking.
Berge okayed the film, unlike another biopic on Saint Laurent due to come out in May.
Saint Laurent was born in 1936 in Algeria, when the North African country was still French territory.
A shy lonely child born to a well-off family, he was taunted over his homosexuality and became fascinated by clothes.
He arrived in Paris in 1953, aged 17, with a portfolio of sketches and the following year won three of the four categories in a Paris design competition — the fourth went to his rival Karl Lagerfeld, now at Chanel.
Saint Laurent started out at Christian Dior and then struck out on his own, with Berge taking care of the business side.
He went from strength to strength, mixing along the way with famous people, and his name and the YSL logo became synonymous with all the latest trends.
But in his later years, the depression that haunted him all his life became more oppressive, and at his farewell bash in 2002 Saint Laurent admitted to having recourse to “those false friends which are tranquilisers and narcotics”.