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I recently visited the Bowes Museum in County Durham. In particular, I wanted to see the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition ‘Style is Eternal’. I’m going to split my visit review into two parts – one covering the exhibition and another more general review of the museum itself.

Growing up, as a teenager, I had a fascination for Yves Saint Laurent. His designs represented, for me, something which could be translated into styles for the everyday woman. I had a dream, when I was studying European Marketing at University that I would go and work for him in Paris – not in design, but in marketing the YSL brand. That obviously didn’t happen but I’ve continued my admiration for all things YSL throughout my adult life. Yves Saint Laurent’s first signature perfume ‘Y’ was also the first perfume I wore and I still have bottles in my perfume collection to this day.

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So, it was with great excitement that I booked tickets for the exhibition at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle in north east England. The museum building itself is absolutely gorgeous (more on this in my review of the museum) and added to the drama and the glamour of the exhibition.

I can recommend buying the official exhibition catalogue which is a beautiful hand-finished book. You do get a little booklet free as you enter the exhibition space which is a numbered guide to all the exhibits, but the exhibition catalogue provides photographs and historical information which the little booklet doesn’t. The catalogue is £24.99 but, for me, this will become part of my fashion book collection.

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Focusing on five key themes in Laurent’s designs the exhibition highlighted designs in the areas of: Art, Spectaculaire, Masculin-Feminin, Haute Couture and Transparence. The exhibition experience was visually stunning, combined with beautiful music (Ravel’s Bolero, Verdi’s Rigoletto etc). I particularly loved the way that the exhibition was, in part, integrated into the museum’s main fashion and textile displays – each period of fashion history being linked with one of YSL’s collection themes.

Yves Saint Laurent started designing outfits as a teenager cutting out pictures of women from his mother’s fashion magazines, then designing his own creations on paper to cut out and dress the paper dolls. The exhibition shows some of the remaining paper dolls that were left in his collection. He even named the dolls after key fashion models from that time and put on fashion shows for his siblings.

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Saint Laurent was taken on by Christian Dior in 1955. When Dior died in 1957, the young Yves took over the reigns as designer for the fashion house. One event, highlighted in the exhibition, is the charity fashion show which took place at Blenheim Palace in front of Princess Margaret in 1958. This beautiful fuchsia pink dress ‘Zéphirine’ (below) was featured in the exhibition and featured in media coverage of the event when the model wearing the dress famously lost the hat she was wearing when it fell off on the catwalk and the moment was captured by the world’s press for posterity!

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What I learned about the design process of Saint Laurent’s glorious creations was that Yves would put pencil to paper without really knowing what he was going to draw. He said that it was the act of drawing that brought about the creativity in the design process. It was also interesting to learn that he would rather work with a real woman in front of him rather than a mannequin. Once Yves had produced a drawing of his design, toiles (outfit mock-ups) were created in muslin by the atelier who then worked with him to make any adjustments and refinements before the toile was then used to make the pattern for the garment.

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Fabric swatches and detailing, such as buttons, embroidery, and beading, were attached to the drawing. The exhibition has some excellent examples of these design details.

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Haute Couture

Whilst with Dior, Yves followed in the footsteps of his deceased mentor by continuing to create Haute Couture gowns very much influenced by Dior’s New Look, he soon became frustrated and rebellious and, having been fired by the Dior fashion house, he and Bergé set up on and the brand YSL was born.

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Allowing Yves the kind of creative freedom he hadn’t experienced before, he was able to design against public expectation. Whilst keen on simplicity in design he also had no qualms about creating extravagant Haute Couture designs for his wealthy and well-known clients.

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Some of the best examples of this are included within the exhibition.

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Masculin-Feminin

The Masculin-Feminin theme in Saint Laurent’s designing has to be one of the most influential trends in fashion history bringing, to the modern woman, outfits and garments which we still all wear today – the pea coat, the trench coat, the trouser suit, the tuxedo, the jumpsuit, safari styles and the fisherman’s reefer jacket. These designs have stood the test of time and have been adopted by other fashion designers and by more mainstream fashion retailers across the globe. This theme has to be one of Yves Saint Laurent’s most important legacies. First designing them at a time when women were no longer just wives, mothers and housewives but women with jobs and careers, there was a feeling of equality about these items but Saint Laurent ensured that whilst ‘stealing from the boys’ these garments and outfits would enhance a woman’s femininity and sensuality.

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Throughout my teenage years and my adult life the masculin-feminin theme has been so important. I remember wearing a trouser suit with a shirt and tie but with hair and make-up done for a school non-uniform day when I was in sixth-form in the late 1980s. I also remember wearing a lot of trouser suits when I first started working in the 1990s. Whilst, for me, I now favour dresses over trouser suits for work, I certainly have trench coats, jumpsuits and a black velvet tuxedo jacket hanging in my own wardrobe. It’s possible that these items I wear and love would not be there if it hadn’t been for the creativity and innovation of Yves Saint Laurent.

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Transparence

Yves Saint Laurent was quoted saying ‘a woman’s most beautiful garment is her nakedness’. He believed that, by using lace and sheer fabrics, he could offer tantalising glimpses of the female form at its beautiful best. He used this approach through much of his career and there are some beautiful examples in the exhibition.

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I particularly liked the short black evening gown from 1970 which has a large cut-out panel on the back which has been replaced by black lace. This offers a very sensual view of the wearer’s back.

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I also absolutely loved the navy blue silk chiffon dress (below right) with loose fitting sleeves which were tied at the wrist with silk ribbons. In fact, I have seen a similar dress from a fashion retailer recently.

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I’m not sure, however, whether I would ever have had the confidence (or the body!) to wear this fantastic creation (below left).

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Art

As you might expect, this theme was heavily influenced by Yves Saint Laurent’s love of art. Over the years, Yves and his partner, Pierre Bergé, amassed an impressive art collection. In his Art themed pieces you can clearly see the influence of some of the greatest artists of the 20th century including Pablo Picasso, van Gogh, Matisse and Mondrian etc.

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I particularly love this Homage to Georges Braques (below). You can’t quite tell from the angle of my photographs, but it really does appear that the white doves are the only things holding the royal blue crêpe material up!

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You can also tell, from this collection, the designer’s love of colour – something that he himself admitted only really came to him after visiting and falling in love with Marrakesh in Morocco. Saint Laurent and Bergé owned a home in Marrakesh and the sights, sounds and colours obviously influenced him a great deal.

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Spectaculaire

As you might guess, from the title of the theme, this collection is quite spectacular and heavily influenced by drama and theatre. In his youth, Yves had considered a career in theatrical costume design but then the offer from Christian Dior was made and the rest is history.

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He did, however, collaborate with theatres and opera houses, producing some fantastic costumes for the stage. But, this love of all things theatrical crept into his designs for YSL.

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The examples exhibited at the Bowes Museum certainly showed drama and flair. His creation Homage to Shakespeare (below) really draws on detailing that we know of through history of the fashions of the Elizabethan period.

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Would I recommend this exhibition?

All in all, I left the exhibition feeling a kind of joy that you can only really feel by experiencing something of great beauty and encountering creative genius. Yves Saint Laurent will continue to be influential to me and many other women, in what we wear, for many years to come. The ‘Style is Eternal’ exhibition at the Bowes Museum runs until 25th of October 2015. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Whether or not you are a fan of fashion, you cannot fail to enjoy and appreciate the massive impact this designer has had on women’s fashion.

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I will also be reviewing, more generally, the Bowes Museum in a couple of days. I hope you’ve enjoyed my review of the exhibition. If you’ve been to see it I’d be really interested to hear what you thought of it!

Marguerite xx

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