Yves Saint Laurent and the PARIS OF THE SAHARA


Undoubtedly one of the greatest grand couturiers to ever grace the halls of fashion fame, Yves Saint Laurent’s legendary collections epitomised classic, elegant french tailoring and style. His was a life devoted to a career that spanned close to fifty years of fabulous gowns, iconic jeweled jackets and the hallmark pant suits for women so famously favoured by Catherine Deneuve.  Credited as the first French couturier in the ’60s and ’70s to showcase a prêt-à-porter line, YSL’s undeniable creative genius revolutionised the fashion industry and inspired countless designers to follow.

Born Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, in Algeria, North Africa, in 1936, Saint Laurent describes his childhood as “a happy one”. Surrounded by doting women, a budding, young Yves was given the freedom and platform to allow his creativity to blossom. And blossom it did, dressing his aunts from a tender three years of age. In eleventh grade, Yves told his mother that one day his name would be written in gold letters on the Champs-Élysées.  He was clearly going places.

Prodigy status was soon to be made public and, at 16, he entered several sketches into a competition run by the International Wool Secretariat, winning first prize. Yves wrote to Michel De Brunhoff, editor of French Vogue, who encouraged the talented youth to further his career.  At 17, Yves moved to Paris and enrolled at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. On graduation, he re-entered the competition to win again. Blossom came into full bloom when De Brunhoff took the winning designs directly to Christian Dior, who, upon meeting Yves, immediately hired him as an assistant.  

Yves was starstruck by Dior and savoured this precious time under his tutelage.

When Dior died suddenly, in October 1957, Yves was given the unlikely status of Head Designer at the House of Dior. He was only 21 years old. It was a brave choice by Dior but a successful one. The following year, his first collection so enthralled audiences, the young Saint Laurent shot straight to fashion stardom and the house was saved from financial ruin.

In 1958, Yves met soon-to-become life partner, Pierre Bergé, an astute businessman who – at that time – cared not for the fashion world, preferring literature and the arts. This, however, was soon to change as a romance began and their worlds colluded.  

After a dispute over Saint Laurent’s incapacity for military service he was replaced at Dior. Three weeks in the army had been enough to bring about the breaking of the sweet, shy designer. From a psychiatric hospital bed, Yves told Pierre they had but one option: they must start their own couture house. Yves Saint Laurent was born and he and Pierre very quickly built the house to the heights of dazzling success. Together they moved mountain after iconic mountain, decade after decade. From clothing and accessories to fragrances and makeup, YSL became one of the most successful fashion enterprises the world has ever seen and their powerhouse pairing the envy of all.

Behind the scenes, Yves and Pierre acquired and decadently furnished several homes, including a rather special project in Marrakech. Saint Laurent’s love of Morocco was well documented. This was a place where he not only felt at peace, where he could retire from the glitterati that craved him so, but also the place where he discovered colour.  Yves was fascinated by the vibrant hues of Moroccan architecture, tilework, textiles and furnishings, and the inspired collections that followed his discovery of Marrakech were a clear celebration of this love. In his own words,  

“In Morocco, I realized that the range of colors I use was that of the zelliges, zouacs, djellabas and caftans. The boldness seen since then in my work I owe to this country; to its forceful harmonies, to its audacious combinations, to the fervor of its creativity. This culture became mine but I wasn’t satisfied with absorbing it.  I took, transformed and adapted it.”

In 1980, when the famous Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech was to be demolished to give way to real estate developers, Yves and Pierre, who lived close by and often visited the gardens, immediately set about saving the building – ‘Villa Oasis’ – and surrounding botany by purchasing the one time artist’s studio and restoring it piece by piece. The results are simply stunning. Along with interior designers, Bill Willis and Jean Michel Frank, they brought colour, tapestries, wall decorations, Zellij tilework and Moroccan craftwork to a glorious crescendo. The striking blue of its exterior walls with contrasting yellow pottery a tribute to not only Matisse but life itself. An extra wing, Salon Matisse, was built also in celebration of the artist, and a smaller, more intimate space, named the D’Annunzio room, after the 19th Century orientalist. The atelier was originally created as a museum of Islamic art but, in 2011, Villa Oasis became a museum of Berber art and is one of the most visited sites in Marrakech.

Just six years after retiring, in 2008, Yves passed away, his ashes scattered in Jardin Majorelle.  Much of his later years were spent in recluse, preferring to stay at home with his dogs than to face the outside world he found so frightening.  Marrakech, however, remained a safe haven for Yves, a place where he was happy.

His life and legacy linger on with the opening of the Yves Saint Laurent museum in Marrakech RIAD, in 2017.  Designed by Studio KO, mere steps from the gardens, the beautifully curved facade of the new, award-winning building appears timeless, undeniably elegant in its placing.  The street has been renamed Rue de Yves Saint Laurent in honour of Yves’ contribution to the city.

A nearby hotel riad is the perfect accommodation from which to discover the area.  Ryad Dyor is elegantly dressed in contemporary Berber style and would doubtless have been to the designer’s choosing, for those wishing to make the pilgrimage to Marrakech. Who isn’t?!  The gems of a genius garnered under one gorgeous roof, set on the grounds that Saint Laurent himself chose to preserve is a haven that heaven has, surely, in hand.