Casting the Catwalk, Saint Laurent Style

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Pat Cleveland skipped off to Paris in the early 1970s, intending to ditch her career. “I thought, I’m going to stop modeling,” Ms. Cleveland reminisced the other day. Her plans were derailed when, wearing a poncho and jeans, she encountered the designer Fernando Sanchez, who directed her glance toward a second-story window where his friend Yves Saint Laurent stood gazing at her avidly.

In an instant, Mr. Sanchez was escorting her to tea with Saint Laurent himself. “You can’t leave Paris,” she remembered him pleading. “I need you to work with me.”

An absolutist to the tips of his brogues, Saint Laurent brought much the same decisiveness to the casting of all of his models. Light-skinned or dark, fleshy or ethereal, each represented a striking departure from the wholesome ideal of the time.

The couturier’s maverick approach is reflected, often to haunting effect, in “Yves Saint Laurent,” the film biography that arrived this week on screens across the country. The movie attempts to resurrect the fertile years of the ’70s and early ’80s, a period during which Saint Laurent creatively thrived. Insiders with long memories may well applaud the film’s fidelity to the man and the era, not only in the casting of Pierre Niney, a near double for the neurasthenic designer, but also in the choice of mannequins that would saunter down the cinematic catwalk.

“There was a tipping of the scales at that time,” Jalil Lespert, the film’s director, said of the models. “A movement away from robotic toward individuality, and that, of course, affected the casting. I was going toward modernity.”

Representing modernity on the Saint Laurent runway were queenly, often exotic, beauties like Kirat, a copper-skinned Indian, and the French Caribbean Mounia, and the alabaster-skinned American Clotilde. His casting flew in the face of the prevailing look of the day. “At the time, the models were all-American,” said Marian McEvoy, an editor in the late ’70s for the Paris office of Women’s Wear Daily and a writer for T: The New York Times Style Magazine. “There was a Christie Brinkley sort of look.” In contrast, she said, “he seemed to go for character and womanliness, no matter what the color or nationality.”

Mr. Lespert was intent on resurrecting the Saint Laurent runway in form as well as spirit. “In casting, we were looking for graphic models with faces that told a story that had a personality,” he said, “for beauty combined with a certain intelligence, not elegance exactly, but something very particular.”

Someone like Ms. Cleveland, whose name is invoked in the film and who in the ’70s was the lean-faced, loose-limbed American who became a favorite in the Saint Laurent cabine des mannequins. It was her face, she suggested, that first may have captivated the designer. “I looked like an egg that was just about to be cooked,” she said. “I had no eyebrows and very red lips. I could look androgynous; I could look feminine. I wasn’t this or that.”

Her peers were more often expected to conform to type. “He gives you this role, and you are obliged to follow it,” Nicole Dorier, a Saint Laurent model and muse, told Alicia Drake, the author of “The Beautiful Fall,” a history of the decade that spawned Saint Laurent and his chief rival, Karl Lagerfeld. Saint Laurent had cast her as a latter-day Joan Crawford, Ms. Dorier recalled. “Either you take the role and play with it, or you do not stay.”

Ms. Cleveland, in contrast, remembers the period as one of giddy liberation. Saint Laurent, she said, “wasn’t like Claude Montana, who made you stick your knees together with glue.” Trained as a dancer, she was encouraged to bounce down the catwalk, inscribing swirls into the air with her narrow hands. As noted by Harold Koda and Kohle Yohannan in “The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion,” “that dramatic fashion performance injected a sense of event into the mood and feel for runway modeling that has survived to this day.”

A model’s gait was far from her only asset, Ms. Cleveland would have you know. “Personality meant a lot to Yves,” she said. “The joie de vivre in the person’s face is what it was all about.”

By Ruth La Ferla for the New York Times.

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