In just 40 years, Yves Saint Laurent, the man, has fashioned a legend, while the Yves Saint Laurent company, Groupe Yves Saint Laurent, has grown to become one of the world's leading labels for clothing, perfumes, accessories, makeup, and skin care products, and, of course, haute couture. The distinction between man and mark is necessary: while Yves Saint Laurent continues to excite the fashion world with his collections for haute couture and ready-to-wear clothing, the group, since 1993, has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Sanofi, itself a subsidiary of French industrial giant Elf Aquitaine (FFr 280 billion in 1996). As such, Yves Saint Laurent Perfumes forms the core of Sanofi's FFr 3.8 billion beauty division, the industry's third largest perfumes and cosmetics group behind L'Oréal and Estée Lauder, joined by such other labels as Roger & Gallet, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Oscar de la Renta. Sanofi also has controlling interest in two other important labels, Nina Ricci and Yves Rocher. In 1996, annual sales at Yves Saint Laurent were reported at FFr 2.48 billion (US$460 million) for perfumes, and FFr 4 billion (US$750 million) for its couture.
Haute couture, guided by Yves Saint Laurent's Maison de Couture, represents only a fraction of sales under the Saint Laurent name, yet remains the label's flagship. Yves Saint Laurent continues to assure the design and development of the Saint Laurent haute couture and ready-to-wear collections, and his January show has long been the central event of the fashion world. Saint Laurent is seconded by long-time partner and Saint Laurent CEO Pierre Bergé, who oversees direction of the label's ready-to-wear and licensed products, including the group's chain of more than 100 Yves Saint Laurent boutiques. Total licensed sales of Yves Saint Laurent products reached FFr 4 billion in 1996. In 1998 Yves Saint Laurent celebrates his 40th annual collection as the official designer for the year's World Cup, hosted by France.
Although perfumes have seemed to play a secondary role for Yves Saint Laurent, they have long been the label's chief sales engine. Yves Saint Laurent Perfumes, under the direction of Sanofi's CEO Raymond Ortal, produces and markets perfumes, cosmetics, and personal care products under the Saint Laurent name. Perfumes make up the most important part of this division's sales, which neared FFr 2.5 billion in 1996, boosting the Sanofi beauty division's total sales to FFr 3.8 billion. Yves Saint Laurent's Opium and Rive Gauche have long been leaders in the women's perfumes market; while Jazz, and, in the mid-1990s, Opium pour Homme, have helped the company capture a share of the men's perfume market as well. The company also produces its own line of lipsticks, eye shadows, and other makeup products, as well as a line of personal care products, such as lotions and cremes. Whereas production and distribution of perfumes and beauty products are the responsibility of Sanofi, Yves Saint Laurent continues to guide the creative development of products bearing his name. The group's newest perfume and cosmetics line, In Love Again, expected to be launched as a limited edition in 1998.
Heir to the Fashion Crown in the 1950s
Yves Mathieu-Saint-Laurent was born in the French Algerian port town of Oran in 1936. At the age of 18, Saint Laurent journeyed to Paris to begin a career as a clothing designer. Success was immediate: in November 1954 Saint Laurent was awarded his first prize, the Prix Robe (dress), in a competition held by the Secretariat. It was to be the first success in a career that would see little but triumph.
Less than a year after his arrival in Paris, Saint Laurent entered the prestigious house of Christian Dior as Dior's assistant designer and designated heir-apparent. Saint Laurent debuted his first major design, an evening gown, in 1955. Two years later, at Dior's death, Saint Laurent assumed direction of the Christian Dior line. Saint Laurent's first full collection, dubbed Trapeze, debuted on January 30, 1958. The collection was a hit, elevating Saint Laurent to instant celebrity and earning the 21-year-old designer the prestigious Nieman Marcus Award for the Dior house.
Three years later Saint Laurent set out to found his own fashion empire. Leaving Dior, Saint Laurent, joined by Pierre Bergé, established his own maison de couture on the rue la Boétie in Paris in July 1961. The partners, assisted by several former Dior employees and backed financially by the American J. Mack Robinson, officially opened the House of Saint Laurent on the rue Spontini in December 1961, presenting the first true Yves Saint Laurent collection--under the famed YSL logo designed by Cassandre--one month later.
Throughout the 1960s Saint Laurent established his leading role on the Paris--and world--fashion scene. More than a star, Saint Laurent would come to represent haute couture itself, to the extent that, by the end of the 1960s, Gabrielle Chanel would designate Saint Laurent as her "spiritual heir." Among Saint Laurent's successes of the decade was his triumphant 1965 Mondrian collection, featuring strict lines and simple color schemes inspired by the painter. The following year was launched another Saint Laurent trademark: the tuxedo for women. A daring design, the tuxedo would not only become a mainstay, even centerpiece, of each year's Saint Laurent collection, but the design marked a revolution in women's fashion, suggesting that trousers and femininity were not mutually exclusive and opening the way for the androgynous fashions of the 1970s. In 1966 as well, under Bergé's leadership, Saint Laurent was the first of the major designers to open a luxury ready-to-wear boutique, Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, separate from his haute couture collection. It was to be the first of a chain of franchised boutiques bearing the Saint Laurent name.
In 1965 financial backer J. Mack Robinson sold out his share of the company to the United States's Charles of the Ritz, which then came to hold 80 percent of the couture house, against the 20 percent held jointly by Saint Laurent and Bergé. Meanwhile, Saint Laurent continued to excite the fashion world, inaugurating the "ethnic" trend with his presentation of African-inspired designs in 1967 and starting the "safari look" with his 1968 collection. That same year, Yves Saint Laurent presented the first transparent designs, shocking the fashion world with their "see-through" look and inspiring designers for decades to come. Apart from haute couture and ready-to-wear, Saint Laurent brought a love of theater to the decor and costumes of the stage and film worlds. Among films and productions featuring Saint Laurent designs were Notre Dame de Paris (Roland Petit, 1965); Belle du Jour (Luiz Bunel, 1966); Claudia Cardinale's costumes in The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1962); costumes for the 1968 production of Paradis Perdu, featuring Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev; and for many others, including Sophia Loren, Jeanne Moreau, Johnny Halliday, Miou Miou, Anne and Duprey.
Although Saint Laurent's emphasis continued to be on women's fashions, he also began designing for men. In 1969 a new boutique was opened, Rive Gauche Homme, featuring the designer's ready-to-wear men's fashions. At the same time, the Saint Laurent name was branching out into its own line of perfumes, including YSL, and, in 1971, YSL pour Homme, the launch for which Saint Laurent himself posed in the nude. In that same year Saint Laurent again shocked the fashion world--and introduced a new trend--with the presentation of his 40 (also called Libération) collection, a "retro" look inspired more by nostalgia than the fashion world's more usual avant-garde.
Ascending the "Throne" in the 1970s
The deaths of Chanel in 1971 and of Christóbal Balenciaga (the Paris fashion world's so-called "king of kings") in 1972 left Yves Saint Laurent the undisputed king of the fashion community. The following year Saint Laurent also became the leader of his own house: the sale of Charles of the Ritz to the U.S. pharmaceutical giant E.R. Squibb & Co. presented Saint Laurent and Bergé with the opportunity of purchasing full control of the group's couture activities. Charles of the Ritz would continue to exploit the Saint Laurent line of perfumes and cosmetics, although creative leadership for these products was provided by Saint Laurent.
Control of the fashion house gave Bergé and Saint Laurent a new opportunity. Moving the house to the avenue Marceau, Bergé launched the company into the licensing arena, authorizing the Saint Laurent name to appear around the world on a range of clothing and accessories. The company's licensing activities would prove highly successful in promoting the Saint Laurent name beyond the rarefied worlds of haute couture and ready-to-wear fashions. In these, Saint Laurent was achieving fresh successes, including his triumphant Opera-Ballet Russes collection of 1976 and a series of tributes, from 1977 to 1981, to Vélasquez, Delacroix, Picasso, Aragon, Apollinaire, Cocteau, and Shakespeare. New Saint Laurent perfumes were also successful, with Rive Gauche launched in 1977 and Opium, considered a landmark in perfumes, introduced in 1981. The following year Saint Laurent was awarded the International Fashion Award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. In 1983 the company introduced Kouros, a perfume for men.
The 1980s saw a new string of tribute collections, including Hommage à Matisse in 1983, as well as Hommages à Bernard Buffet, Zizi Jeanmaire, and Marcel Proust et Catharine Deneuve in the same year. Another event in 1983 provided a measure of Saint Laurent's stature: the mounting of a retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, directed by Diana Vreeland. The exhibition, Yves Saint Laurent: 25 Years of Creation, was the largest retrospective ever granted to a living designer, and it attracted more than a million visitors. Other retrospectives followed: in Peking in 1985, in Paris in 1986, and in Moscow and Leningrad in 1987. In 1985 Saint Laurent was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by French president François Mitterand.
In 1986 Saint Laurent and Bergé took a new step: the purchase of Charles of the Ritz from Squibb. The purchase price, US $500 million, not only gave Saint Laurent control of its perfumes, it also added operations roughly ten times the size of the company's house of couture. Compared with the couture line's approximately FFr 300 million in sales at the time, Yves Saint Laurent Perfumes generated more than FFr 2 billion. While Bergé and Saint Laurent took on a huge personal debt, the partners also turned to a number of third parties to finance the deal. Among these was Carol De Benedetti, who took 49 percent of the new Groupe Yves Saint Laurent.
Saint Laurent and Bergé had succeeded in grouping all of the Saint Laurent products under the same company. They had also assumed a massive debt. That debt, and subsequent events, would eventually result in the partners' losing entire control of their company. Initially, the future was bright: the company prepared the launch of a new perfume for men (which had already been under development for years, but which had been squelched by Saint Laurent Perfume's former U.S. owner) called Jazz. This perfume not only represented the company's first perfume line developed entirely in-house, the company was also depending on its success to recoup some of the massive cost of the perfumes division purchase. The company had looked forward to taking the company public on the Paris secondary market, a move that would have gone a long way toward easing the company's--and Saint Laurent's and Bergé's--debt burden. But the market crash of October 1987 ended that plan. The Paris bourse placed tight restrictions on new public offerings. Indeed, public offerings had become unattractive, given the wave of hostile takeovers that marked the era. At the same time, Saint Laurent, even with the Jazz launch, remained a minor player in the men's perfume market, then dominated by Azzaro, Paco Rabanne, and Laroche.
New Owners for the 1990s
De Benedetti proved an unlucky choice for a partner. By 1989, preparing a series of corporate raids elsewhere, De Benedetti insisted on cashing in his Saint Laurent investment. An initial deal to allow De Benedetti to exit the company collapsed. Saint Laurent was forced to list on the Paris secondary stock market in July 1989. Fearful of a hostile takeover, Bergé took the precaution of changing the company's structure, transforming Saint Laurent into a limited partnership. This reorganization would safeguard Bergé and Saint Laurent's control of the company's direction. It would also have more dire consequences--ironically, the structure would lead to the partners' loss of control entirely.
By 1991 De Benedetti was demanding to be let out of his investment. Bergé and Saint Laurent searched for new investors, offering some 15 percent of the company. It was not a good time to be looking for investors--the economy was slumping into a worldwide recession, which would become particularly severe in Europe and last well into the mid-1990s for much of the continent. For Saint Laurent's luxury products market, the wild ride of the 1980s was over and the more sober 1990s had begun. More important, investors were unwilling to enter a company in which, due to its limited partnership structure, they would have no control. At last, Bergé and Saint Laurent themselves bought up De Benedetti's shares. "We found the money in two minutes," Bergé told L'Express, bringing his and Saint Laurent's personal debt burden to total some FFr 850 million.
Several months later, another investor, the bank Wasserstein-Perella, indicated that it needed to sell its 15 percent of Groupe Yves Saint Laurent. The block of shares would provide a strong entry for a hostile takeover, despite the company's limited partnership structure. The bank was instructed to find a friendly buyer for its shares, with the requirement that the buyer be neither American nor Japanese. This limited the choice to Europe, and, ultimately, to France's luxury products and cosmetics giants, chiefly L'Oreal and Moët-Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH). The former was interested, but only in taking 100 percent of the company, for a price suggested to be as high as FFr 5 billion. Moreover, a full sale to L'Oreal could lead to Saint Laurent coming under control of L'Oreal's parent, Nestlé. Bergé and Saint Laurent refused. Moët-Hennessy Louis Vuitton--and such prestigious labels as Christian Dior, Lacroix, and Givenchy--also indicated interest in Saint Laurent, but again for 100 percent, not the 15 percent being offered. Bergé, burdened by personal debt and perhaps weary of steering a multinational company, came closer to accepting the full sale of the company, with the condition that he be given control of a division grouping Saint Laurent with its arch-rival Dior. LVMH balked.
One company remained that was capable of assuring Saint Laurent's future: Sanofi, the medical and beauty products arm of French industrial giant Elf Aquitaine, then still a nationalized company. Negotiations with Sanofi would continue off and on through 1992, which marked the 30th anniversary of the Saint Laurent house. By the middle of that year, however, the personal debts of Bergé and Saint Laurent were crushing them (Bergé's bank account was reported to be more than FFr 90 million in the red). Bergé and Saint Laurent arranged the private sale of portions of their stock, raising some FFr 100 million. This sale would soon lead to Bergé being charged with violating insider-trading rules--soon after the sale, Groupe Saint Laurent revealed that it had posted a loss for the first half of the year.
In January of 1993 the company announced that it had agreed to be acquired by Sanofi. At last, the partners had agreed to sell 100 percent, but in a deal assuring that, while the direction of Saint Laurent Perfumes would be controlled by Sanofi, the Maison de Couture would remain the province of Saint Laurent and Bergé. The purchase price of FFr 3.6 billion also contained an unusual provision: the granting of FFr 350 million to Bergé for abandoning the limited partnership. At the same time, Bergé announced his intention to retire after the year 2000.
Years of turmoil at Saint Laurent had given Sanofi a new division with shrinking sales and meager profits. After several years of losses, however, in 1995 Sanofi took action to reinforce its perfumes division and introduce a more affordable pricing structure. Whether these actions were enough remained to be seen; in September 1997 Sanofi began hinting that it was looking to sell off its perfumes division.
In the late 1990s Saint Laurent remained the acknowledged center of the fashion industry. His latest collection, presented in January 1998, marked his 40th year and 150th collection. Indeed, 1998 proposed to be the Year of Saint Laurent: on July 12th, a retrospective of 300 of Saint Laurent's works was scheduled to be presented at the finale of the 1998 World's Cup, before a televised audience expected to number more than two billion. The company planned to launch its newest perfume line, In Love Again, while preparations were made for an exhibition in tribute of Saint Laurent for the International Fashion Festival of Photography in New York in March 1998. Finally, 1998 would also see the inauguration of the Saint Laurent Gallery in the National Gallery of London--a lasting tribute to fashion's living legend.