Fashion and Art Collide in Yves Saint Laurent’s Love Cards

Garden

Anyone who knows anything about fashion has heard of Yves Saint Laurent. But what people may be less familiar with is his informal career as an artist.

Galerie-Love

Hidden away in the Jardin Marjorelle in Marrakech, which Saint Laurent bought in 1980 with Pierre Bergé, and where his ashes were buried after his death in 2008, is the ‘Love Gallery.’ I arrived at the Jardin Marjorelle seeking some refuge from the African sun, and instantly understood why Saint Laurent and Bergé were drawn there: it is a beautiful oasis full of blossoming foliage in a city that is predominantly dust and sand. The rather ambiguously named ‘Love Gallery,’ a tiny blue square on the garden map, caught my eye and I wondered what it could possibly hold. The tiny, one roomed building, tucked away on the edge of the garden, houses the entire collection of Saint Laurent’s ‘Love Cards.’ He created one every year from 1970 to 2000 to send to his family, friends and clients in order to welcome the New Year. The cards are boldly coloured and graphic, and the message could not be clearer; it is declared through the use of one, four letter word: ‘LOVE.’

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The cards, often humorous and whimsical, allowed the recipient then and the viewer now a glimpse into the consciousness of the legendary fashion designer. They often include the things he held most dear, his bulldog Moujik, or the fountains of the Jardin Marjorelles. However, they also serve to reinforce his artistic abilities. They are clearly well thought out, aesthetic pieces of work, and highlight how talented he was in the visual arts, as well as in fashion design.

Love

They also show an appreciation of the history of art, and the influence of many famous, twentieth century artists is clearly visible. The 1991 card is an homage to Andy Warhol: it displays four images of Saint Laurent’s beloved Moujik, coloured in different hues on a bright yellow background. The caption definitively states Warhol’s influence, reading ‘this is Moujik, my dog, painted by Andy Warhol. Me, I am Yves Saint Laurent.’ However the curling French script juxtaposed with the imagery is reminiscent of Renee Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. While the influence of these two artists is clear, Saint Laurent ensures that the viewer knows exactly who made it, and it is his talent as an artist that is important here. He is drawing on his knowledge of the history of art to create a piece that is unique to him and specific to the time and culture in which he was working.

Love-Sun

Henri Matisse’s influence is also evident in the cards, many of which employ the same collage technique with bright colours and bold, simple shapes that he turned to later in his career. The 1986 card is arguably the most basic in composition, yet also one of the most effective. It consists of a yellow background and cut out shapes in four different shades of blue which are used to create a scene of the Jardin Marjorelles itself. Despite the limited colour palette and simplicity of the shapes, Saint Laurent has captured the feel of the garden perfectly, and it would be instantly recognizable to anyone who had visited. The dark blue against the bright yellow background creates the effect of the oppressive sun and the cool shade offered by the trees.

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The cards created during the 1970s have a definite look that clearly identifies them as part of the same epoch. Graphically, they are more complex than the later compositions, more closely aligned with The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine imagery than the work of any particular artist. The 1977 example is particularly complex. It shows a woman wrapped in a long flowing piece of fabric that is decorated with rows of triangles and curving lines. She could be interpreted as a Muslim woman covered by her hijab, and thus a symbol of Algeria, Saint Laurent’s place of birth and childhood. However, he has given her a modern twist, updating the traditional religious garb for the 1970s by dressing her in a colourful, geometric pattern. It has a hypnotic quality, as if the viewer is seeing something that does not quite exist. The 1973 card is an erotic picture of a naked woman, coiled in what appear to be tentacles or snakes. Unlike the later cards, which tend to employ very simple compositions- some are simply large blocks of different colours- the cards of the 1970s are more figurative.

Hijab

These cards show a different side of Yves Saint Laurent. They highlight his enthusiasm to experiment in different media and test his design skills on a two-dimensional surface, as well as on the human body. However, they also depict him as playful, light hearted and, above all, deeply loving.

‘Maroc: Land of Wonders’….French Elle visits Morocco, 20 April 1953.

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My colleague Alexis passed on an interesting Moroccan-themed photoshoot that was published in French Elle in 1953, 3 years before Morocco received independence from the French colonial administration that was in place from 1912 to 1956. It featured “3 women and 60 dresses” in Morocco, the “Land of Wonders”. An interesting double-page spread titled “SOUKS” comprised of one large photograph of a model, Suzy, on the right, which took up two-thirds of the spread, and six smaller numbered snapshots of all three models, Suzy, Taina and Françoise, presented in a grid-like formation on the left, above a block of text that detailed their elegant French fashions (Balmain, Lanvin-Castillo, M. de Rauch, Jacques Fath and Dior) and activities in the souk.

Suzy, Taina and Françoise try on djellabahs (a short or longer-sleeved outer garment with a hood and slits at the bottom), barter with Arab merchants, pose by the drinking trough (where “beasts and people meet”), take morning walks, stop by each stall to admire luxurious fabrics, get pursued by small children, and finger freshly dyed wool piles, all the time holding on tightly to their designer handbags. They are dressed in streamlined lightweight French fashions which, the caption tells us, enable them to spend all day in the souks whilst maintaining the ideal body temperature: neither “too hot, nor too cold”. The models are clearly delineated from the local population by dress, pose and stature; they point their toes, flick out their skirts, and assume an air of confidence and composure by placing, for example, one hand on the hips, whilst the other clasps the lapel of a blue, beige and white striped percale jacket. The local population, dressed mostly in djellabahs, cherbil slippers and the litham (the piece of fine, translucent cloth that Moroccan women use to cover the bottom part of their faces), are used more as authenticating background props than to provide any detailed information about their changing modes of dress. There is no mention, for instance, that Arab women’s increased adoption of the djellabah during this period, usually worn with the hood draped over the head and accompanied with the veil, was a symbol of modernity that accompanied their increased public mobility. Instead, the article insinuates an underlying sense of danger within the souk, in which Morocco as an extension of France is placed as an inferior culture in need of French (fashion) guidance.

Published in April 1953, only 4 months before Mohammed V of Morocco was deposed and forced into exile by France for giving tacit support to Istiqial (the Moroccan independence party, founded in 1944), French Elle’s article ‘Maroc: Land of Wonders’, although masquerading as a cultural appreciation of the country, might also be read as an insidious attempt to reassert French authority.