I never went to a Saint Laurent couture show in the ballroom of the Hotel InterContinental on Rue Castiglione. I was just a teenager when Monsieur Saint Laurent decided to shut up couture shop after three decades dedicated to the perfection of his style, so I never saw first-hand the sedate passages of models in silk charmeuse and chiffons and tweeds under glittering electrified chandeliers, along a raised podium. That podium, incidentally, was all-important – it meant you shifted your gaze, looking upwards at the models. It reminds me of the famous quote from Saint Laurent when asked how he viewed women: “as idols”.
That ballroom was also where Saint Laurent showed his Ballet Russes collection in 1976, his first fashion show outside of a maison de couture, where most designers, up until then, normally showed. Saint Laurent would present there for the next 25 years. So that ballroom is no mere room, but an inherent piece of Saint Laurent iconography, and architecture. Isn’t everything loaded, chez YSL?
Context is everything. Anthony Vaccarello’s resurrection of that space for his Winter 2023 show was remarkable in its verisimilitude (as soon as I saw the chandeliers, I knew – the moiré carpet harked back to the YSL couture salons, but Yves must be annoyed he never thought of doing that at the hotel), although as befits the scale of Saint Laurent today, it was magnified, the ballroom surreally elongated to the length of a soccer pitch, the chandeliers multiplied.
Can we say the clothes were the same as back under Yves? Well, yes and no. They echoed Saint Laurent’s favoured shapes, his strong-shouldered tailored jackets, his slender knee-length skirts with slits, his easy sleeveless tops, the heavy jewellery designed by Loulou de la Falaise, the whole lot best when worn by Catherine Deneuve. That these new clothes, fresh iterations of a slither of the Saint Laurent canon, were remarkable is indisputable. Everything looked exquisitely made, the fabrics vibrating with expense. It was also unmistakably elegant – a word Vaccarello used a lot before the show. They also stood apart from fashion as a whole, making a singular statement shorn of the crass notion of “trend”. These were timeless pieces. Yet, somehow, timely – watching them today, even within their original context, saw them reconfigured. And, of course, Vaccarello reworked their silhouettes, shapes and cuts: the jackets were exaggerated, elongated like the space, extended at each side, satisfying 21st-century eyes used to proportion, demanding more to arrest, surprise, and ultimately seduce.
Seduction was key, to this Saint Laurent show. It’s also, possibly, the most difficult thing to harness as a designer and to describe as a journalist. How to explain the discreet charm of a slightly-above-the-knee skirt and camisole, the frisson of attraction contained within the manner in which the bodies of the models moved in those clothes, skin slightly visible through crepe de chine, legs encased in sheer stockings, heels high? There was something potently carnal about these clothes, more sexual than any amount of flesh-baring of climbing hemlines. Vaccarello has explored both those ideas before, but here his work hit a new sophistication and a fresh height.
There’s always something compelling about Saint Laurent of old. I remember, as a fashion-addled kid raised on a diet of Galliano and McQueen spectaculars, first watching Saint Laurent shows and thinking: “what’s the big deal?” Where’s the excitement, in these immaculately coiffed women sedately gliding through a salon in cassata-coloured duchess satin? The follies of youth. Now, I look back and see some of the most immaculately constructed and innately desirable clothes ever fashioned. And that’s what Vaccarello is looking at, and what he’s making, too.
Vaccarello’s absolute clarity of vision is what is truly remarkable about his Saint Laurent – his focus, his drive and his passion for making women look beautiful. It isn’t about marketing and it isn’t about merchandising. It’s about beauty and it’s about love. There’s nothing more Saint Laurent than that.