Yves Saint Laurent with his paper dolls, Photo by Francois Pages, 1957.
In his popular book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell ventures to debunk the phenomenon of the wunderkind. Rather than a manifestation of an otherworldly gift ordained by a higher power, a prodigy is the result of an opportune convergence of raw talent and grit. Only when natural aptitude meets dedication bordering on mania does exceptional genius emerge. From Mozart to Bill Gates, history’s great luminaries were all developed through some version of the same prescription. So, how might Gladwell’s rule apply to the fashion world?
Fashion’s prodigious son arrived in the form of an angular, bespectacled seventeen-year-old from French Algeria. At the tender age of twenty-one, Yves Saint Laurent ascended the proverbial fashion throne as the successor to the great Christian Dior. Four years earlier, Dior had immediately recognized the potential of the young man and set about grooming his successor. In the beginning, the work was hardly glamorous. However, the mundane, didactic tasks of that first year never bothered the aspiring designer, who absorbed every detail of the dynamic studio like a sponge. If Gladwell’s theory stands, it is this period of early gestation where one may unearth exceptional clues to impending brilliance. That is exactly what we find in the charming archive of paper dolls found at the Foundation Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent.
(L) Ghislaine Arsac in (YSL) Dior's iconic black velvet sheath with white satin sash made famous in Avedon's photo of 'Dovima with the elephants', Photo by Guy Arsac, 1955. (R) YSL for Christian Dior,1960.
(L) Yves Saint Laurent for Dior. (R) "Nuit de Venise "by Yves Saint Laurent for Dior, 1960.
Yves Saint Laurent was an artistic child whose imaginative outlets were sartorially slanted from the start. He sidestepped the impediment of war shortages by expressing his creativity through meticulously handcrafted paper dolls. The hobby proved advantageous when he arrived in Paris in 1953. His poupées are delightful and fresh, suggesting a steady hand and keen eye. Even the untrained eye can discern an extraordinary talent in the layers watercolors, gouache, and decoupage. But what ascribes him to Gladwell’s club of genius is that after he landed the coveted position alongside Monsieur Dior, his miniature, two-dimensional models were not cast aside. On the contrary, the output of papery ladies increased in both quantity and sophistication.
The dolls were created between 1953 -1957 and the archive consists of 11 dolls, 443 garments, 105 accessories, 7 patterns and 2 collection programs. The mannequins borrow languid poses, divine visages, and respectable monikers from the era’s most glamorous beauties (Suzy, Bettina, Vera, Ivy and Florence). His mastery of rendering depicts furs, tweeds, satins, and brocades with appetizing precision. Each poupée’s wardrobe is distinct. Doll 3 prefers the modernity of rocket slim suits, while Doll 4 dresses in voluminous evening gowns reminiscent of the court of Empress Eugenie. Suzy (Doll 2) and Florence (Doll 8) boast the most comprehensive trousseaus, including day wear, evening wear and separates. In fact, Florence’s partiality for turtlenecks is unhindered by contemporaneous trends; in her two dimensional closet hangs a bodiced, bustled gown reminiscent of the 1870s next to an amorphous coat featuring asymmetrical pocket flaps, which anticipates space age design of the following decade.
Doll 3 in 'Lodi', 'Yukatan' & 'Lord'.
Doll 4 in 'Athéna' & 'Faste'.
Doll 2 (Suzy) in 'Ciel de Paris' & ' Mouche, Michel, Lyli la tigress, Capitaine Crochet '. (Right dress unnamed)
Doll 8 (Florence) in 'Station Terminus' (right).
An assortment of accessories.
Amazingly, each piece is regarded as its own entity, receiving the loving attention of a poet: form, silhouette, color, fit, embellishment and finally, baptism. The majority of these ten-inch sketches have a conscientiously selected name neatly scribed on the back. A few bear multiple titles; a stately jet-black column flanked by flouncing white tiers successfully carries the following list of names: Mouche, Michel, Lyli la tigress, and Capitaine Crochet. Each title adds a new dimension to the design: the neat fur trim of Station Terminus, an amusing novelty print on Coralie, and the devastating sophistication worthy of Madame X found in Sphynge. The names are amusing and multifaceted – predictable and zany, proper and challenging, geographically and historically minded, unconditional of gender, nationality or solemnity. Gabrielle, Célidée, Midi, Minuit, Les Petit Pois, St. Marie de Mers, Millie, Michaela, Santo Sospire, Starelina, Fracassante, Gladys, Commodore, Concorde, Lord, Scotland Yard, Madison Sq., Minneapolis, Gin, Mist, Wist, James, Eric, Geoffery, Cristoffe, Yves, Mr. Verdoux, Dagobert, Bisifer, Azerbaidjan, Yakimour, Sparkenbroke, Barbizon, Diva, Lionella, Diabolica. The list is an early indication of the expansive and eclectic scope of Yves Saint Laurent’s inspiration, which would inform his greatest collections in years to come.
Doll 1 in 'Mylady' (on left).
Doll 5 (Bettina) in 'Makila' (left) & 'Larissa' (right).
Doll 6 in 'Louise' (right).
Doll 7 (Vera). (All dresses unnamed)
Doll 9 (Ivy) in 'Geoffery' (left) & 'Encorcelante' (right).
Doll 10 in 'Semiramis', 'Coralie' & 'Elodéa'.
For the historian, the Maison de Poupée provide a chance to identify which codes of the Saint Laurent aesthetic existed from the start. Bellow pockets set as decorative embellishment, made famous in 1968 with the safari jacket, are rampant, as are broad shoulders reminiscent of the 1940s silhouette, which would reappear in the famous 1971 collection. His indelible bows and sashes bedash the eveningwear with rigid elegance. Most telling of all are the two handwritten programs in which every detail of an imaginary salon presentation is considered, including location, model casting, make-up, and accessory suppliers. Such dedication meets Malcolm Gladwell’s qualifications for a true prodigy. We are witness to the promise of a visionary, through concurrent delight and doggedness, the assurance that a destiny will be realized.
The relevance of the archive is as potent as the ephemeral condition of the medium. For all the darling charm that miniatures arouse, the poupées accomplish what the legendary designer would go on to achieve throughout a prolific career, to furnish a flat model with enough color and depth to completely fill her out.
(L) YSL sketch of dress for Marie Helene De Rotschild for the Bal Proust, 1971. (R) Veruschka in the original safari jacket, Vogue, Photo by Franco Rubartelli, 1968.
(L) Yves Saint Laurent, Spring 1964. (R) Yves Saint Laurent, Spring 2001.
(L) Wilhelmina in YSL, Photo by Irving Penn, Paris, September 1962. (R) Victoire in YSL, Photo by Jerry Schatzberg, 1962.
The precocious Yves Saint Laurent completed his designs with a comprehensive program guide, a dress rehearsal that reveals a sensible awareness of the unique requirements of a salon presentation. (Above & Below)