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Pulling the strings

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At the end of every Yves Saint Laurent show, the designer would take the same glittery, heart-shaped brooch and fix it to one of his outfits. That brooch sits in a case at the end of Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective, now open at the Denver Art Museum.

The case is dark, so you catch only glimpses of the fist-sized pin, flickering like a heartbeat, as a spotlight flashes on and off. But Florence Müller, chief curator of the exhibit and a fashion writer and historian, can shed more light. Wearing her own black Yves Saint Laurent dress and speaking with a heavy French accent, she explains to assembled media that the late designer saw it as a charm, to bring luck to the collection.

"There is also this idea of giving love to the woman," she adds. "By offering style to the wardrobe of the woman, he was giving them love, his love."

I promise it doesn't spoil the finale of The Retrospective, but it does punctuate the 200-piece exhibit sweetly. A palpable thread of tenderness runs through the show; you can find it in the details visible in the garments crowding the galleries, video of Saint Laurent's final runway show in 2002, and his reconstructed design studio, humble as a worker's of any stripe, says Müller.

You can also find it in the images from Saint Laurent's famous nude photo shoot, advertising the launch of his first cologne. Müller says the photos possess a touch of femininity, and, with the presence of a halo-like glow behind the designer's head, a suggestion of saintliness beyond his surname.

The photos share a room with the late designer's infamous spring-summer 1971 collection, an homage to the "sophisticated femininity" of World War II-era clothing. The heels, red lipstick, elaborate coifs and hourglass shaping didn't sit well with contemporary critics: Not only was Saint Laurent recalling a painful era, its sensibilities were woefully dated for a time informed by free-flowing hippie fashion.

The collection flopped — until the designs were reworked for more mainstream buyers (known in the industry as a ready-to-wear collection). Then it became a commercial success, one of many in the designer's career.

Firsts and philosophy

Born in Algeria in 1936, Saint Laurent got his start in fashion at the very top, as a designer at Christian Dior. Shortly before Dior's sudden death in 1957, he named the 21-year-old Saint Laurent his lead designer. He led the world's top fashion house for a few years before founding his own in 1961.

Saint Laurent was the first to design full ready-to-wear lines, and to use ethnic models on the runway. Another one of his biggest firsts arrived in 1966 when he unveiled "Le Smoking" — tuxedos for women.

Though hard to imagine now, the exhibit takes pains to demonstrate how in the '60s and '70s, wearing pants was courageous and difficult for women. Not only was Saint Laurent a seminal figure in changing that, says DAM museum director Christoph Heinrich, he also shaped the way men look at women in pants.

"A great designer is reacting to his time, and is shaping his time, both."

Saint Laurent was the first, and one of the only, to successfully integrate fine art into fashion. Standing in a room next to dozens of other breathtaking garments is his iconic Mondrian dress, a cocktail gown of square panels in red, white, blue and yellow honoring Piet Mondrian's geometric abstract paintings.

To properly transfer a flat painting to a 3D object inhabited by a body wasn't just a matter of pattern, says Müller. To uphold the formal philosophy behind Mondrian's work (value derived from form) and high fashion, Saint Laurent built the 1965 dress piece by piece, like a patchwork. "It's the first time that you have such an encounter with the world of art and the world of fashion," says Müller.

Surrounding the Mondrian dress stand tributes to Picasso, Léger, Matisse and Braque. There are also two jackets painstakingly embroidered with shimmering beads and sequins, creating irises on one, sunflowers on the other. Dizzying in their beauty and movement, they replicate the undulating whorls in, and capture the spirit of, Van Gogh's paintings.

"I think it really shows this creative mind, that worked like an artist," says Heinrich. Like the other speakers on the media tour — which included Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent's longtime partner and co-founder of the foundation archiving his clothing — he speaks of Saint Laurent as doing everything an artist would do, but always refers to him as a couturier — a designer.

Müller likens Saint Laurent to Andy Warhol, in that the latter took items from the supermarket and made them fine art, while Saint Laurent took fine art and made it fashion. Furthering her point, a Warhol portrait of Saint Laurent hangs near the art garments. It's there on loan from Bergé's own office.

A classic

Denver is the retrospective's only stop in the country. Heinrich has heard talk of it going to Brazil following its July close.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for the museum, and quite honestly, this is why we built this building," Heinrich says of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building, which opened in 2006. "To host shows like this. To host shows of world class."

What renowned architect Daniel Libeskind created for the DAM is a far cry from the retrospective's first host, the Petit Palais in Paris. The 1900-built museum is a "jewelry box," says Heinrich, who confesses he wasn't sure how to translate the show to an ultra-modern stage. However, Müller and the exhibit team found that the DAM's contemporary environment highlighted the timelessness of the clothing.

Saint Laurent created classics through contradictions: He valued black and color; the modern and the past; the masculine and the feminine; of his time and before his time. During the tour, Heinrich himself was wearing a vintage YSL tie.

"I think each and every model," he says, "you just could take up right away and wear it, and nobody would see that it's 40 years old, 50 years old."

edie@csindy.com

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