You remember the kid. That guy three desks over in school with the uncanny ability to draw. He’d fill his notebooks and the margins of books with detailed sketches of almost anything that popped into his head, and his pictures took on such life that even the teacher took notice. He might have even whipped up a quick pencil portrait of you.
If you’ve ever wondered what happened to that grinning young fellow, pause now and rejoice that every so often there is indeed justice in the world. For just that sort of boy did embrace his God-given talent, marched straight ahead to the sound of his own peculiar drumbeat, and grew up to be Yves Saint Laurent, the iconic, era-defining fashion designer who bent the arcs of color, light and even the world’s vision of the female form through dazzling dresses, skirts, wraps and hats that all started out as cheery pencil-on-paper sketches.
And if “Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style” is any guide, he appears to have kept every one.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exhibition, continuing through August 27, certainly gives us what we expect to see: a dutiful assortment and compendium of fashions that represent Saint Laurent’s whimsical yet disciplined imagination, influenced by a raft of cultural and regional markers that stretched all the way back to his childhood in French Algeria.
But in a smart and subversive nod to every artsy kid who ever doodled aimlessly in class, “Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style” also offers up the flamboyant designer’s homegrown sketches — scores of renderings of dresses, skirts, tunics and frocks in Saint Laurent’s boyish hand, not to mention the hats, purses, shoes and even flower-boutonnieres he imagined might serve as perfect complements and accessories to his clothing.
Thus does this absorbing exhibition carry us on a roughly chronological tour of Saint Laurent’s journey across not only the brimming provocations of the late 1950s and 1960s but also into the impatient, spark-plug firings of the designer’s always-active mind, which gave birth to his accessible and enduring ready-to-wear “Rive Gauche” fashion line, an inspired update of haute couture clothing that both helped to create and refract the grand cultural, visual and sexual phantasmagoria of the counterculture age.
Once it’s done presenting us with careful cataloguing of Saint Laurent’s euphoric teenage sketches, paper-doll collections and fashion booklets, the exhibition ushers us into a long, narrow space that gives us not only fashion goods on mannequins but also fills the opposing wall with the designer’s “collection boards”—carefully formatted grids filled with sketches, swatches and the names of models that would wear dresses-to-be—that became his day-to-day organizational currency after arriving in Paris when he was only 17. Saint Laurent soon took over as artistic director of the House of Dior at age 21 following the untimely death of Christian Dior in 1957.
This evidence of the human hand at work, along with a generous assortment of archival photographs, projections and videos that show Saint Laurent himself progressing in looks, style and bearing, gives the exhibition a winsome, even sentimental, attitude and vibe. We see a designer starting out looking like a mild-mannered, straight-laced worker bee in the ‘50s and ending up a portrait of the psychedelic raconteur and trendsetter he became by the ‘70s and ‘80s. Additional elements that come later in the exhibition, such as dress designs that drew from both the 1920s masterpieces of painter Piet Mondrian and 1960s Pop Art legends Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, show how seamlessly Saint Laurent could integrate grand visual style with easy-to-love design grace and beauty.
As presented by the VMFA, the show is not without its minor irritations. Outfits on display are not accompanied by descriptions: instead, they must be matched to text contained in the show’s program, which makes for distracting reference work and tends to bottle up the foot traffic, especially in the long main exhibit area.
To preserve colors and hues both on paper and fabric, the museum has also rightly chosen to keep the exhibit’s lights low. Here, however, they are too dim by half, which not only makes the entire show hard on the eyes but has the added effect of dampening the visual joy Saint Laurent worked so hard to bring to his designs.
Finally, while documentary photographs shot by such luminaries of the day as Helmut Newton and Horst P. Horst help round out the Saint Laurent story, a series of slide shows presented on waist-high kiosks click through much too fast. And in an age of iMovie convenience and such digital tools as the vaunted “Ken Burns Effect,” is it too much to ask that the slides dissolve elegantly as they transition rather than flash-cut one to the next?
Still, taken as a whole, “Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style” points even in its cheeky title to a theme of slow, unerring progress towards an ultimate aesthetic goal.
It may be especially difficult in our modern, electric-cool age, where every fashion statement, musky identity or yawp of artistic abandon can simply be bought off the rack, to imagine an earlier era when authentic sweat and calculated risk served as the hard-earned coin of the realm to shatter assumptions and break down barriers.
But as the exhibit makes clear, Yves Saint Laurent, ever optimistic and always on the job, was the real deal. Yes, it was one thing for this peerless designer to be in the right place at the right time. But it helps to be the right person, too—someone whose skills and passions fit the times and who was ready and willing to take his shot at changing the world. And to think it all started with humble schoolboy sketches.
The ticketed exhibit is free for VMFA member and $10 to $22 for non-members. For tickets, hours, and more, go here.