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Unique Yves Saint Laurent Exhibition in Calais

Dress worn by Karen Mulder. 1996 Spring-Summer haute couture collection. Photograph by Claus Ohm © Yves Saint Laurent © Claus Ohm – DR

“Fashions fade, style is eternal” Yves Saint Laurent

At the internationally renowned Museum of Lace and Fashion in Calais, northern France, a major exhibition dedicated to the late great French couturier Yves Saint Laurent is eye-poppingly fabulous. Transparences, the name of the exhibition, is an absolute must-see, especially for fashion fans, and a fascinating and unique look at the work of one of the fashion world’s greatest designers.

A little bit of French fashion history

The French have been famous for dressing well for centuries. As long ago as the 17th century – not long after the Mayflower carried pilgrims to North America and Isaac Newton published one of his most important scientific works Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) – the French were turning fashion into an industry.

The modern fashion show dates to the Paris in the 1860s, though it was a pioneering Englishman, fashion designer Charles Frederick Worth, who kicked it things off by using live models instead of mannequins to present his creations. 130 years later, on July 12, 1998, the great French designer Yves Saint Laurent created a monumental runway show at the Stade de France ahead of the Football World Cup final between France and Brazil. Lasting 15 minutes, the event involved 300 models, 900 backstage hands and 4,000 stadium staff. It was televised live to about 1.7 billion people.

Yves Saint-Laurent was a showman and fashion visionary whose legacy lives on.

Yves Saint Laurent  – Transparences, Museum of Lace and Fashion, Calais

Evening gown. 1980 Spring-Summer haute couture collection. Photograph by Patricia Canino.© Yves Saint Laurent. Collection Cité de la dentelle et de la mode ©Patricia Canino /Evening gown. 1999 Spring-Summer haute couture collection. Photograph by Patricia Canino © Yves Saint Laurent © Patricia Canino

The Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Paris has teamed up with the Museum of Lace and Fashion in Calais for an exhibition that focuses on transparency – the way Yves Saint Laurent used nude effects in his designs. It will run until 12 November 2023. A second exhibition (which will not be the same as this one), will open in Paris in February 2024.

Seductive, sensuous, and shocking

Workshop specification sheet referred to as a “Bible page” of a short evening dress. 1966 Autumn-Winter haute couture collection. © Yves Saint Laurent / Illustrative sketch of a “smoking” from the 1968 Spring-Summer haute couture collection created by Yves Saint Laurent in 1983 for the catalogue for the exhibition Yves Saint Laurent 25 Years of Design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. © Yves Saint Laurent

Born in Algeria in 1936, Yves Henry Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent was destined for fashion. Whilst still at school he won a prestigious international design contest and when a Vogue magazine executive showed Christian Dior some of the schoolboy’s sketches, Dior hired him immediately as his assistant. He was 17 years old.

Dior died in 1957 and Yves Saint-Laurent was named head of the House of Dior at just 21 and exploded onto the fashion scene. In 1962 he opened his own fashion house and became one of the most influential Paris designers. He made trousers and the tuxedo (Le Smoking in France) fashionable for women, created Mondrian-inspired shift dresses and many more looks that defined the fashions of the 1960s until he retired in 2002 and which continue long past his demise. One of his most enduring themes was that of transparency.

Transparent fabrics were prominent in his late 1960’s collections. Sometimes his designs were seen as scandalous and shocking as he pushed couture to new extremes but ultimately influenced fashions of the late 20th century and into the 21st century. A flick through images of gowns worn by Hollywood glitterati at big events this year reveals just how much the transparent look is still a big theme.

An astounding collection

Outfit worn by Naomi Campbell. 1999 Spring-Summer haute couture collection. © Yves Saint Laurent © Rights reserved /Evening gown worn by Gurmitt Kaur Campbell. 1990 Autumn-Winter haute couture collection. © Yves Saint Laurent © Rights reserved

The exhibition is astounding – some 60 original outfits (10 of which belong to the Museum), original sketches, collection boards, swatches of material and invoices give an intimate window to the designs. Wonderful photographs of models and clients such as Catherine Deneuve wearing Saint-Laurent, together with anecdotes plus catwalk film footage bring to life the designer’s creations in a way that still shocks at times. But you it’s clear just how incredibly sophisticated the designs were and how the exquisite tailoring that made him the King of fashion for decades. I could easily imagine Lady Gaga or Dua Lipa wearing just about anything and everything in the show. From topless blouses to barely covered bottoms in gorgeous evening gowns using lace and sheer materials.

Nothing is more beautiful than a naked body,” the late couturier once declared.

Demure – and decadent

“Transparences” presents an incredible window into the world of one of France’s top designers showing how he worked to ‘reveal’ the body of the woman wearing his costume with both elegance – and audacity.

Dresses that look demure from the front, astonish when you see the back, the derriere barely covered by sheer Chantilly lace. Sublimely cut robes with bodice inserts, evening and day wear that pushed the boundaries of design and required a daring customer, though these outfits were impactful, you were unlikely to see many women wearing the more daring costumes out in public. The Nude Dress of 1968, made entirely of transparent chiffon provided ‘modesty’ in the form of ostrich feathers. Even in 2010 when French model/actress Laetita Casta wore a transparent 1968 Saint-Laurent dress – it caused a sensation. Yves Saint Laurent wrote: “A nude woman’s body, that I have to dress without hindering the freedom of her natural movements. In short, my profession is a loving dialogue with this naked woman, using all the magic of my rolls of fabric.

This is an outstanding exhibition, an astonishing collection and a fascinating window into French haute-couture and fashion history.

Calais Museum of Lace and Fashion

Calais became famous for its lace making in the 19th Century when English lace makers, famous for their lacemaking, smuggled one of their new-fangled looms into France and set up shop at Saint-Pierre just a stone’s throw from the museum. The Anglo-French collaboration was immensely successful and completely transformed the French lace making industry which had previously been handmade only. Calais lace and tulle became renowned, desired by the rich, famous and royalty, and the lace making industry in Calais employed some 40,000 workers in its heyday.

Calais Lace

Today Calais is still an important centre for the production of lace and is much sought after. Clients of Calais lace include Valentino, Jean Paul Gaultier, Lacroix and Calvin Klein, and the majority of the lace produce is exported to countries around the world to be used in the production of wedding dresses and lingerie.

The museum is located in a 19th Century lace factory renovated by the architects who designed Jean-Paul Gaultier’s HQ and the Champollion Museum in Figeac. In the vast museum galleries, you can discover the history of lace making. From the handmade lace of the 16th Century right up to modern times. Gorgeous antique dresses with lace collars, bodices, and petticoats and up to the minute designer haut couture, brocade gowns, velvet frock coats and rolls of exquisite, delicate lace in all colours are on show.

The museum also has a unique collection of nine huge 19th century industrial looms. Five of them are still working – and making lace to this day.


Exhibition Yves Saint Laurent: Transparences – From June 24th to November 12th, 2023

Cité de la dentelle et de la mode (Museum for Lace and Fashion) 135 quai du Commerce – 62100 Calais (about 10 minutes from Calais car-ferry port – well worth a detour.
Open every day from 10am to 6pm (5pm from 1 November/closed Tuesdays)
On site: restaurant, fabulous shop, and resource centre.
See the Museum website for opening times: cite-dentelle.fr
Find out more about this unique exhibition at: calais-cotedopale.co.uk/yves-saint-laurent
Discover Calais and the Opal Coast: calais-cotedopale.co.uk

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