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Law and the LBD: YSL in Montreal

YSL robe smoking 1970If name is fate, then Yves Saint Laurent was destined to be not only a great couturier but a commercially successful one.  Just take a look at his initials, which, intertwined as a logo, form yen, dollar, and pound symbols -- the most powerful currencies of his era.  (What of the euro, you ask?  Perhaps it's no mere coincidence that YSL announced his retirement in 2002, exactly 40 years after he founded his label and the same week that the euro entered circulation.  In France, YSL's portrait even appeared on the last five, ten, and fifty-franc pieces minted before the euro took over.  Rendering unto Caesar must've been a quite stylish pursuit, at least for a short time.) 

YSL's great legacy -- artistic, not financial -- is celebrated in a stunning new retrospective at the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Montreal.  By happy coincidence, the opening coincided with the annual meeting of the Law & Society Association, your favorite law prof's official reason for heading north of the border.  The greatest moments of YSL couture are all on display:  Look!  A safari jacket!  Yes!  The Mondrian-inspired sheath!  OMG!  Can you believe the colors on that Ballet Russes ensemble?!  The number of trends that this man anticipated or created is phenomenal.

YSL did not, of course, reserve his creations only for those with access to the haute couture and the patience for multiple fittings.  He is credited with popularizing ready-to-wear as a cutting-edge fashion option, starting in the 1960s.  As you might expect, his work also gave rise to legions of knockoffs.

Counterfeit Chic's favorite piece in the exhibit is a simple black tuxedo gown from 1970 (right).  The dress appears on a reclining manequin, alongside several other examples of YSL's transformation of "le smoking" into elegant womenswear.  Why this dress, one of the simplest in the collection, as opposed to elaborate beaded embroideries or sumptuous fabrics or technically sophisticated constructions or groundbreaking silhouettes? 

Simply put, this little black dress has a history.  In 1994, a French commercial court found that Ralph Lauren had copied this gown far too literally and awarded its creator a substantial sum.  Although the case was subsequently settled, it remains the most famous example of the gap between two extremes of fashion law, French and American -- and I was standing inches from the evidence, examining every thread.  (And since there is no glass between museum visitors and the garments, making the guards quite nervous.)  I kept my hands behind my back as I leaned forward -- but it wasn't easy. 

If you'll be in Canada this summer, take a break from hiking and fishing and other pursuits requiring utilitarian footwear to visit the exhibit -- there's nothing like seeing this kind of craftsmanship in person, accompanied by perfect lighting, runway videos, and soft music.  Alternatively, the collection will arrive at the de Young in San Francisco on November 1, and the exhibition catalog is available for preorder online. 

Many thanks to Emmett and Pierre for the travel tip!  (It's always nice to have a reason to play hookey for a couple of hours...in the name of research, of course.)

UPDATE:  M. Saint Laurent passed away in Paris the day after this post, on June 1, 2008.  Requiescat in pace.