Q&A with Yves Saint Laurent Chief Curator Florence Müller

Florence Müller had the enviable job of curating the exhibition Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective, on view through July 8 at the Denver Art Museum. She was able to sort through the entire archive of Saint Laurent’s designs and selected more than 200 outfits for the retrospective. Florence is a fashion historian, former director-curator of the Union Française des arts du Costume, curator of a number of exhibitions in France and abroad, and associate professor at the Institut Français de la Mode (IFM). Before Florence traveled to Denver for the exhibition’s March 25 opening, we caught up with her over email to ask a few questions about the exhibition and herself.

Denver Art Museum: This is the first complete retrospective of Saint Laurent’s work. How did you come to be the curator of Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective?

Florence Müller: Mr. Pierre Bergé asked me to be the general curator of this exhibition. I was very honored by his proposal and very excited to work with him on this exceptional and prestigious project at the Denver Art Museum. As an art historian who specialized in the culture of fashion and history of costume, it was a great opportunity to learn more about the career of Yves Saint Laurent. Diving deep into the heart of the archives, in this manner, I had the chance of being in such close contact with the 5,000 haute couture outfits, 1,000 YSL rive gauche outfits, 15,000 accessories, 35,000 drawings, plus numerous photos and documents.

DAM: With more than 15,000 outfits in the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent’s collection, how did you choose what to include in the exhibition? What was it like going through the archives?

FM: Going through the archives was a long and passionate journey. It took several months to select step by step each piece that composed the retrospective. From the total collection of haute couture outfits, we narrowed it down to about 1,000 pieces. The second step was about 800, and then it became very hard to make the final choice between the last 500 items. In the mean time, the parallel work on the documents helped to build the story and to decide what were the most important themes to be treated as to give the most panoramic idea on the “oeuvre“ or life achievement of Yves Saint Laurent.

To understand how this process is exceptional, you have to imagine that there is no other example of a museum devoted to one couturier with such a large archive. The richest collections usually have a few hundred pieces. On the contrary, Mr. Pierre Bergé and Mr. Saint Laurent had very early in time the intuition of engaging in a patrimonial approach of building a tool to perpetuate a man’s creative vision. It was in the seventies and in those times, nobody in the haute couture sphere was taking care of the conservation of fashion’s creations. After the runway everything disappeared. Nowadays, most of the luxury houses try to follow the example of the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent. But it’s very difficult to reconstruct a “museum” like collection in time.

DAM: Just this season we’ve seen direct references to Saint Laurent’s work in young designer’s collections and also the confluence of fine art and fashion. What is Saint Laurent’s influence on young contemporary fashion designers? Is he seen as a mentor?

FM: Yes, YSL is an absolute mentor and a legend that can give the energy to a young designer who tries his luck in the creative world of fashion. It would be too long to detail each influences of his style on contemporary designers. It’s easier to speak about the territories of style that are still today a source of influence for the actual fashion. One of them, being when masculinity encounters femininity has become a never-ending story. You can observe this from season to season, a lot of research on tuxedos, trench coats, pants suits, navy suits, overalls … you can call it simply “Boyish” for example. There is another strong phenomenon last summer 2011 and next summer 2012 season about colors. The way the young designers are building a silhouette with different colors, called “Color block” is a reminiscence of the innovative treatment of colors by YSL.

DAM: Color was an important element of Yves Saint Laurent’s designs – he often paired seemingly abstract combinations that would complement each other perfectly on the outfit. Can you tell us about Saint Laurent’s revolutionary approach to using color in fashion?

FM: The first approach of color was during winter 1965 with the Mondrian collection. Then the next important step was the rediscovery of North Africa when Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé bought a house in Marrakech. The intensity of the Moroccan colors has transported him in another world that was vibrant with a new “palette”. It was revolutionary because the range of colors chosen by Yves Saint Laurent didn’t fit together in the traditional way. They were used in a shocking association: blue with black, pink with red, yellow with purple.

DAM: There have been two other Yves Saint Laurent retrospectives seen in North America since 1980 (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983 and a retrospective in 2008 presented at the Fine Arts Museum of Montreal and San Francisco’s de Young Museum); what was the inspiration behind this particular exhibition? What do you think the Denver Art Museum brings to the table?

FM: The Denver exhibition has a wider approach compared to the other exhibitions. It envisions the complete aspects of Yves Saint Laurent: the work and the man, as his dialogue with the different periods. More precisely, the exhibition contextualizes the YSL style with many pieces such as photos, drawings, personal objects from his studio, and movie archives.

Image credits: Denver Art Museum 2012. Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective is organized by the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent in collaboration with the Denver Art Museum. Funding is provided by the citizens who support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District and the generous donors to the Annual Fund Leadership Campaign.