“I have been to every country in my dreams,” Yves Saint Laurent once said. “All I have to do to blend into a place or a landscape is to read a book, or look at a picture, and then use my imagination.” Now, the designer’s version of Asia – and how it influenced his creative vision – is the subject of an exhibition, Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient. It has just opened at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, located in the late designer’s former couture atelier in Paris.
Saint Laurent’s preoccupation with the region verged on obsession, though he never visited India, and only visited China years after he had created his Asian-influenced collection. So did the designer cross the line between cultural appreciation into appropriation? And can we judge the sensibility of the 1970s by the more progressive standards of today; where authenticity is valued more highly, and cultural copycatting is a definite no-no?
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The exhibition Dreams of the Orient certainly makes a strong case for Saint Laurent’s depth of knowledge about – and passion for – Asia’s cultures, as well as his ingenuity in reinterpreting them. On display are more than 50 stunning couture designs that are clearly inspired by the cultures of India, China and Japan. The acclaimed autumn collection of 1977, Les Chinoises, is a central focus of the exhibition, with its red floral prints and dragon-scale motifs, silk-brocade jackets and gowns inspired by Imperial China. It was a moment of peak ‘Orient’ for YSL – the collection coincided with the launch of the fashion house’s Opium perfume, also influenced by the designer’s heady vision of Asia.
Saint Laurent was intrigued by the region from the very start of his career, as Aurélie Samuel, the exhibition’s curator, tells BBC Culture: “Within his very first collection he offers a personal vision of the Indian Maharaja, reworking the long coats worn close to the body and embellished with a turban.” She also attributes the famously empowering masculine silhouettes to the designer’s love of Indian dress. “The influence is also to be seen in the forms, the techniques and especially in a reinterpretation of the masculine outfits which were adapted for women. He creates turbans for women that are adorned with sarpech, an ornament of the Mughal emperors normally intended for men. He transforms coats into jacket-skirt or jacket-pant suit combinations with slender silhouettes but adapted to the occidental world.”
Shown alongside the designs are ancient Asian artefacts, making the point that Saint Laurent was an enthusiast and connoisseur of the cultures he was paying homage to. Mughal jewels, earrings and other gemstone accessories are displayed, along with a pair of silver gates from a palace carved with graceful dancing figures. “They all inspired his outfits and jewellery,” says Samuel.
Ancient Chinese jade jewellery is exhibited alongside the coats of the Chinoises collection, showing how the designer adopted the same geometric patterns. And also shown are the Chinese lacquered boxes that were another source of inspiration, with their foliage motifs and bold colours – the designer used waxed vinyl in his designs to create an illustration similar to lacquer. A Tibetan lama cape dating from the 18th Century that belonged to Saint Laurent’s friend, the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, is also exhibited – alongside a Laurent-designed fur-trimmed coat. “It is possible that he saw the dancer wear this coat at home, as he was known to do,” says Samuel.
He offers up a vision which remains true to the spirit of Japan – Aurélie Samuel
The social circle of the designer and his partner Pierre Bergé included not just Nureyev, (who also owned a Chinese Imperial dragon robe) but also collectors of Asian artefacts. And Saint Laurent and Bergé travelled to Japan on several occasions. “They went to the Kabuki theatre or strolled in Kyoto,” says Samuel, “seeing neighbourhood courtesans and weavers, which was a great influence on YSL when it came to his reinterpretation of the Japanese kimono.”
The Kabuki, a flamboyant artform that transplants rich costumes into a scenic setting, was a particular fascination. The designer’s kimonos are “adapted to the European taste,” says Samuel. He replaced the Obi belt with a different trim, but, says Samuel: “He still offers up a vision which remains true to the spirit of Japan, always in keeping with the elegance of the courtiers.” Books and films, meanwhile, were also an inspiration for the Chinese and Indian influenced designs, along with the ideas he drew from Hollywood movies. The 1932 thriller starring Marlene Dietrich, Shanghai Express, featured the quipao-dresses of 1930s Shanghai, versions of which featured in the YSL collections.
“But it wasn’t a superficial kind of knowledge,” argues Samuel. “He knows how to differentiate a Han garment with a straight collar from a Manchu garment with a sceptre-shaped collar. He assimilates the iconographic repertoire of Imperial China: the dragon, the geometric motifs found on archaic jades and the floral motifs.”
It’s unlikely that any Western designer today would create outfits so blatantly inspired by countries that they had only occasionally visited, if at all. It would be deemed at best inauthentic. But of course, YSL was not alone. European fashion and decor have long been influenced by Eastern aesthetics, especially from the 17th Century onwards, when trade with Asia intensified. In the 18th Century, Kahsmiri shawls were introduced to fashionable Europe, and silk and lacquer from China was increasingly used in furniture.
“It is Japan that has most influenced European culture – in particular French culture,” says Samuel. “It even gave rise to a Japanese movement, bringing together collectors, artists and intellectuals who all played a role in the spread of Japanese culture. Prints, in particular, go on to play a very important role in the use of incisive lines and bright colors within Europe.”
East meets west
Now, even the word ‘Orient’ feels dated. In fact, even back in the 1970s it was beginning to feel wrong. It wasn’t long after YSL’s Les Chinoises collection that Edward Said published his 1978 book Orientalism. He pointed out the problematic aspect of art or literature termed ‘Orientalist’, saying that they frequently relied on simplistic, racial stereotypes of ‘exotic’ or ‘mystical’ Eastern cultures. ‘Orientalism’ was, according to Said, woefully out of touch with the realities of life in Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
When, several decades later, in 2015, New York’s Metropolitan Museum staged its China Through the Looking Glass exhibition, the curator Andrew Bolton was sensitive to the issues of authenticity and appropriation. Speaking about the Met exhibition, he told Jing Daily: “I think a lot of designers are not inspired by the real China — they’re inspired by this fictional China that just really exists as a Western fantasy, and that’s really what you’re seeing with the garments here, is this mixture of some factual elements, but also some things which are very distant from reality.”
It’s hard to imagine a 21st-Century designer getting away with what YSL did in the 1970s – today, it would seem tone deaf, particularly as the Asian customer is so highly prized by designer brands. Now the emphasis is on creating designs for real Asians rather than about a fantasy of Asia.
I’d prefer to shock rather than bore through repetition – Yves Saint Laurent
So how should we now view YSL’s obsession with the ‘exoticisms’ of the ‘Orient’ – as appropriation? Aurélie Samuel is adamant that it’s not: “This is absolutely not a case of cultural appropriation in Saint Laurent’s work,” she argues. “It’s a tribute …He was cultivated and was eager to understand the different countries as well as their cultures and thoughts which run through them.” The designs, Samuel insists, are more a homage to Asian culture than a purloining of it: “The attention he gave to understanding China’s history shows that he was interested in the subtleties of the costumes, the different social classes and the dynasties that reigned there. It testifies to an in-depth knowledge of the country. Whenever he creates one of these highly original garments he is at the same time quoting from a passage of Chinese culture.”
They were certainly a product of their era, but still, there’s no denying the sheer beauty and elegance of the YSL designs of the time, or the distinctive, heady brilliance of the iconic Opium, with its spicy notes. The bottle design was based on the Japanese inrō (a lacquered case containing aromas), and the scent caused an immediate uproar when it was released in 1977, as it was named after a drug. It was banned in the Middle East and Australia and a committee of Chinese Americans opposed its “insensitivity to Chinese history and Chinese American concerns.” However, the controversy only helped to publicise the perfume, which made more than $3 million in its first nine months, a fortune in those days.
Saint Laurent was defiant. “I’d prefer to shock rather than bore through repetition,” he said. And, true to form, following the Opium uproar, there was no diplomatic statement or apology from the fashion house. The designer responded instead with an official US launch of Opium, celebrating with a lavish, decadent party, a culturally eclectic concoction of pure fashion fantasy. The Peking, a schooner moored in New York’s East Harbour, was transformed into a fantastical pirate ship, with a huge bronze Buddha and more than 2,000 orchids flown in from Hawaii. Among the 800 glamorous guests were Cher, Truman Capote, Diana Freedland, and designer Halston. The after party took place at the hedonistic Studio 54. It was a quintessentially 1970s moment. No doubt, it all made perfect sense at the time. As the designer himself once said: “Fashion is like a party. Getting dressed is preparing to play a role.”
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