It’s usual for a couture house to delve into its archive to power designs forward – after all, haute couture is a moniker that still holds discernible power and cachet, and visions of icily-dressed mid-century mannequins in perfectly-crafted clothes remain archetypes of glamour today. But, usually, it results in evening dresses, maybe an embroidered handbag or shoe. Anthony Vaccarello embraced the haute couture heritage of Yves Saint Laurent – the man – in his latest Spring/Summer 2022 menswear collection for Saint Laurent – the house. The clothes were billowing, Victorian-inspired, poetic, and romantic. They referenced, maybe, Saint Laurent’s love of the work of Marcel Proust: the couturier fitted out his country pile, the Château Gabriel, in homage to Proust’s masterwork À la recherche du temps perdu. Each bedroom was named after a character: Saint Laurent cast himself as Swann, his partner Pierre Bergé was the Baron de Charlus.
Vaccarello ran through the details: “There are references to YSL early 80s black and white evening suits, pleated trousers from [the] ’83 collection, short tailcoat spencers and boleros from collections ‘69 till the 80s, highlighting iconic detailing such as passementerie buttons, tuxedo lapels, black buttoning on white tailoring, styling with bows and evening scarfs.” Quite. The collection contradicted its environment, a hyper-modernist large-scale installation created by the American artist Doug Aitken – an echo of the house of Saint Laurent’s frequent tie-ins and homages to fine art. A series of mirrored chambers set on a Venetian island, it was a stark, futuristic contrast to the richly decorative clothes on show. “The idea of the structure is about the desire to look [to] the future without forgetting the past,” said Vaccarello. He intended the clothes to do the same too.
Fashion is always a mirror – reflecting its times, reflecting itself but, in actuality refracting rather than reflecting, inventing a new image of that it beholds. It is never piecemeal reconstruction. The same was true here. The mere transposition of Saint Laurent’s couture gestures from the bodies of couture mavens to those of male models – a diverse crew scouted from around the world, united in youth and, it seems, attitude – gave them a different context. A brocaded and frogged short evening jacket became street, daywear, combined with narrow black trousers and winkle picker boots; a prim lace blouse was worn slashed open to the waist, baring more than it covered. The decontextualising of these clothes gave them a new meaning, a different power – and, of course, there was a sense of a fluidity of gender, of bold womenswear shapes and decoration transposed to menswear, sometimes unaltered, the sleeves were often bracelet-length, like a teenage boy wearing his incredibly well-dressed mother’s wardrobe.
That wardrobe was embedded in the couture history of Saint Laurent, reflecting Vaccarrello’s innate knowledge of the house. When he began, his approach – he told me – was a kind of creative collage, combining details, fabrics and shapes from different pieces from the archive so a single dress could allude to multiple eras and incarnations of Saint Laurent. It was a clever way to begin referencing one of the most awe-inspiring archives in fashion. That was five years ago: Vaccarello has grown in confidence. This time around, there were open homages – all the more audacious given they were offered for him, not her. Witness a billowing yellow cloak, a bold co-opting of a truly emblematic design Yves Saint Laurent’s Autumn/Winter 1983 collection (an example is held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, formerly owned by couture doyenne Nan Kempner). It’s one Yves himself re-presented for his farewell haute couture show in 2002 – no-one has touched it, until now. Vaccarello showed it on a guy, in platform boots, against the backdrop of a Venetian sunset.
Of course, there’s also a Saint Laurent backstory of dandified menswear – Rudolf Nureyev was a client for Saint Laurent’s outlandish 70s menswear, stuff like brief safari tunics and thigh-high boots, as well as perfectly-cut suits for day and night. This offer, however, pushed the idea further – designing a menswear proposal that managed to feel audacious, all over again, for 2021.