There are a few choice words you could use to describe the Spring/Summer 2023 Saint Laurent show by Anthony Vaccarello. Sophisticated. Focused. Devastating. But how about we go with powerful as the most succinct descriptor? Because that’s what this show seemed to be entirely about – the power of a brand to seamlessly erect a pathed garden and fountain, curlicued with wrought-iron and studded with salon chairs upholstered in a redux of the green brocade that draped the salons of Yves Saint Laurent himself, atop the existing fountain of the Place du Trocadéro in a record two days. But also the power of a look, and of course the power of women. Once, Monsieur Saint Laurent (him again) was asked how he saw women. In halting English, he answered. His interlocutor thought he answered “as dolls.” But Saint Laurent was quick to correct: “as idols.”
And there was some kind of idolatry going on in this show, where models were clad like goddesses in sinuous columns of fabric, elevated on heels, poised and ready to be worshipped. One source of inspiration Vaccarello cited was the fittings polaroids of Saint Laurent – where the slightly bleached, adulterated colours came from, poisonous greens clotted reds, a bruised lilac. And some of the silhouettes of the clothes seemed to hark back to those images – the strong shoulders of this collection spelled the 1980s, to many; as did its slithery hooded dresses in clinging body-conscious knits. But crack open the Saint Laurent history books (there are many) and you can see the root of the looks in the house history. That’s because Saint Laurent, essentially, invented the 80s in the seventies, if not earlier. That shoulder was first introduced in his Spring/Summer 1971 collection, the one inspired by the styles of the French occupation, and refined season after season until it became a house staple, a fashion gold standard. Vaccarello has refined and reworked it – this season, many are rounder, even broader and executed in leather. Oh, wait, didn’t Saint Laurent show the first leather jacket in high fashion, at Dior in 1960? And those hooded dresses, influenced by the clothes of Saint Laurent’s beloved northern Africa (he was born in Algeria, he had a house in Morocco), first appeared in his Autumn/Winter 1969 collection and were reiterated time and again.
This, however, wasn’t an archive redux. Vaccarello reinvented the proportions, reengineered the shapes. If, from a distance, these seemed like avatars of Saint Laurent’s past come back to life, when they walked up close you realised how modern they looked. Maybe modern is the wrong word – it implies a fleeting obsession with the moment whereas these clothes, like so much at Saint Laurent, had a timeless quality. Were we seeing 1969, or 1987, or 2023? Couldn’t it be all of them? How powerful is that?
The fabrications, Vaccarello also cited, were updated. Saint Laurent used silk chiffons, charmeuses or satins, often binding the body in a slender line – his final collection as an assistant under the guidance of Christian Dior, produced before the latter’s death in 1957 when Saint Laurent inherited his mantle and was thrust into the limelight, was called the Spindle – Saint Laurent designed most of the collection. To rework the line, Vaccarello cut his slim silhouettes in easy jerseys and knits, of different qualities and weights, stretching around the body with the easy modern attitude of a T-shirt.
There was a maturity to this offering – not just of designer, but interestingly, of customer. As a riposte to youth-chasing and flesh-baring, to logomania and streetwear, it was quiet and yet emphatic. You couldn’t help but think how incredible a 60-year-old would look in these clothes, as well as a 16-year-old. But more than anything else I was struck by Vaccarello’s own growth, his ability to razor hone on one aspect of Saint Laurent’s legacy, to express it adroitly, deftly, elegantly. The easy, quiet grace of these clothes cut through the noise of everything else. “This house has always stood outside of fashion,” said Vaccarello. Like Saint Laurent’s own work, these clothes stood out for all the right – powerful – reasons.