The Riches Of Rags

THE REASON THERE IS NO FASHION designers' Hall of Fame is that most of the people who deserve admission would accept only if no one else were allowed in. So the case for the greatness of Yves Saint Laurent is, necessarily, subjective. But before Calvin and Ralph, there was Yves; before even Halston, there was Yves. If not for him, the others might have gone into catering, because Yves Saint Laurent in effect created the role of the fashion designer as a living brand name, a device for endlessly recycling fame into department-store sales. As noted in an illuminating new biography of Saint Laurent by the English journalist Alice Rawsthorn (404 pages. Doubleday. $27.50), long before there were Air Jordans, there were no fewer than 130 products bearing the YSL of ineffable chicdom.

Like his friend and rough contemporary Andy Warhol, he had a phenomenal feeling for the spirit of an age. His work, a paisley gauntlet flung in the charcoal-gray face of haute couture, embodied the rebellious spirit of the 1960s. Although he was famously diffident and given to nervous prostration at inopportune moments, his personal life was a headlong lurch through some of the most glamorously decadent venues of the 1970s. And his business, under the direction of his longtime partner and lover Pierre Berge, made him a multimillionaire when it went public in the 1980s. Even if the distinction of being Catherine Deneuve's favorite designer has lost a little cachet over the decades, Yves Saint Laurent has probably done more to shape our culture's idea of fashion than anyone since Levi Strauss.

And before there was Saint Laurent, there was Christian Dior, who by coincidence is the subject of a show opening this week at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The two were inextricably linked from the day in 1955 when Saint Laurent, an awkward, gangling teenager from the provincial Algerian town of Oran, went to work as a design assistant in Dior's salon in Paris. Two years later, the great designer was dead of a heart attack and the 21-year-old Saint Laurent was head of one of the most famous couture houses in the world.

Dior's distinctive contribution to Western civilization was his very first collection, in 1947. France had just emerged from the nightmare of world war, and already the new threat that would dominate most of the rest of the century was taking shape in Eastern Europe. Fashion was still in thrall to the wartime imperatives not to stand out in a crowd or go over one's ration of fabric. Onto this bleakly unromantic scene burst Dior's "New Look": cinch-waisted, full-skirted, swirling and, naturally, expensive--"the incarnation of possibility in clothing," in the words of cocurator Richard Martin. As the East fell into the regimented ranks of collectivism, the West took its stand with opulence, glamour and sex, following Dior's dictate: to "defend every inch of our personal luxury."

Silk moire: That this was, in fact, the winning strategy would not become clear for some decades. The great cause enlisted thousands of women, from Eva Peron and Princess Grace to the anonymous spouses of ordinary American millionaires, to wrap themselves in yards of Dior's midnight-blue satin and shimmering silk moire. And Saint Laurent did his part, especially after founding his own house in 1962. Four years later he opened his first Rive Gauche boutique in Paris, which pioneered the trend toward ready-to-wear fashions at a fraction of the price of couture, and placed Saint Laurent at the cutting edge of both the mass production of luxury goods and the mass marketing of celebrity glamour. Who else had the cachet to dress both the bride and groom when Mick Jagger married Bianca? Berge once famously described his partner as a "man of exceptional intelligence practicing the trade of an imbecile," which would be true only if you defined Saint Laurent's trade as drawing pictures of clothes and choosing fabrics. When left-wing student protestors took to the streets of Paris in the spring of 1968, Saint Laurent paid them homage in his fall line with a series of duffel coats and fringed jackets. Of course, no student alive could possibly afford them, and the people who could might well have been on the other side of the barricades. But Saint Laurent saw, years before anyone else, that everyone would end up on the same side, clamoring for a glimpse of Claudia Schiffer on her way into Tatou. He just wanted to sell them clothes, and he's still doing it.