Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent was a French fashion designer who founded his eponymous label in 1961. He is known to be among the most notable fashion designers of the twentieth century, who was also known for his ability to adapt his style to accommodate the fashion zeitgeist during that period. Yves Saint Laurent has been highly praised by the fashion industry for being one of the first designers to cast black models and other people of colour on editorials and runway shows. Black model Mounia was also one of his favorite models and his muse.
Yves Saint Laurent’s admiration for black models was almost undeniable, he once described it in an interview with the French press, stating that, ‘It’s extraordinary to work with black models.’ He continues in a rather exotifying manner, ‘Because the body, the way they hold their head, the legs... is really very, very provocative.’ This description alone has the power to change the whole narrative of his motives when hiring black models. Not only is it sexualizing the female body, which is an act that is rooted in the foundation of the fashion industry, but also fetishizing. The language of which Saint Laurent uses in the portrayal of the black physique marks the individual as an object of a sexual fantasy or fetish.
This puts us in a paradox as we find ourselves in a dilemma on where to draw the line between fetishizing and appreciating, as the two can easily be confused with each other.
Cultural appropriation is simply taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest, perhaps in the same way Yves Saint Laurent could have monetized black bodies to cause controversy and draw attention to himself and his collections. Cultural appreciation, however, is when one seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to expand their perspectives and cross-connect with other cultures. In addition, is also about giving credit where it’s due and ensuring that you provide a platform to the people of the culture you are borrowing from. Similarly to how Saint Laurent continuously put his black models at the forefront, not only giving them the same opportunities as his white models but also making sure to put in that slight extra effort allowing them to engage the spotlight, despite the criticism from media and society.
With all this in mind, although Yves Saint Laurent’s sexualizing tone when describing black female bodies can make one question his motives, it could perhaps have been the mere use of language found in the fashion industry at that time. That is to say, his view of the “provocative” black models might have purely mirrored the standard manner of observing models of other races at that time. What can be said though, is that it seems highly unlikely that Saint Laurent had any ill intent. Despite his suggestive statements and tone that wouldn’t be considered “politically correct” today, is his time, he showed the utmost love and appreciation for his black models and even went out of his way to put them on a pedestal in the best way he could at that time. Even if some people today would argue that there was in fact a slight intention to use black models to gain publicity, they can’t possibly deny the fact that he was indeed one of the key factors in paving the way for black faces in fashion. Perhaps black fashion stylists, photographers, magazine editors and even designers would have had a much longer time to wait for their first step into fashion if it wasn’t for Yves Saint Laurent. Whether this is something to celebrate is debatable, nonetheless, it’s something to note when discussing the history and impact of Yves Saint Laurent in our modern time.
Image Sources: L’officiel USA, Musee YSL Paris, archivealive on Twitter, Shelby Ivey Christie on Twitter & Nial McInerney.