Yves Saint Laurent’s China fantasies gave the fashion world its most daring designs

China of his dreams.
China of his dreams.
Image: Courtesy Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris
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He had never traveled to China, but traces of Chinese culture and heritage had inspired him to create what became some of the most daring designs in the history of fashion. It was that distance that gave Yves Saint Laurent room to imagine things that no one had thought of.

The legendary couturier came up with the idea of borrowing elements from Chinese ceramic art, furniture, textile, embroidery, and imperial and Peking opera costumes to create a collection of masculine haute couture for European women. The result was the 1977 Chinese collection, which will be on display this fall at the Paris museum that houses his legacy.

“China was one of his inspirations,” said Aurélie Samuel, Le Musée Yves Saint Laurent’s director of collections and curator of the exhibition Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient. “He had never been to the country, but he was very interested in Chinese art. He had a huge collection of books, many of them about Chinese art.”

The exhibition will be the museum’s first thematic show since its opening in 2017, and will run from Oct. 2 to Jan. 27.

Ensemble du soir from the 1977 haute couture collection
Ensemble du soir from the 1977 haute couture collection
Image: Courtesy Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris

Saint Laurent told Women’s Wear Daily in 1978 that keeping a distance from China allowed him to roam free in his imagination and recreate the image of the country through his fashion. “It was his Chinese idea of the country,” she said.

The Chinese collection is among other Asian collections, namely Indian and Japanese, to be shown at the exhibition. On view will be 50 designs as well as the objects and works of art that show Saint Laurent’s exotic inspirations, as illustrated in his sketches.

Coco Chanel might have freed women by putting them in trousers, but Saint Laurent liberated women and gave them power with “le Smoking,” the first tuxedo for women he designed in 1966. This signature is also obvious in the Chinese collection, which features women’s jackets inspired by robes of the imperial emperor, characterized by straight lines that create a masculine look.

Croquis d’illustration pour la collection haute couture automne-hiver 1977, Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris © Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent _ Tous droits réservés
A sketch of one of the designs from the 1977 Chinese collection.
Image: Courtesy Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris

“His aim was to give women the power of men, so that they could stand on equal footing,” said Samuel. Saint Laurent’s long-time partner “Pierre Bergé always said fashion is not only for aesthetics. Fashion changes the mind and changes the society.”

There are also feminine pieces. Among them is a dress inspired by ceramic vases from the Ming dynasty, but instead of making it in blue and white according to the colors traditionally found in such vases, black and white were chosen. “Maybe the colors were adapted to the taste of European women,” said the curator.

Samuel said the Chinese collection was well-received at the fashion show, but Saint Laurent’s imagination of China was not without controversy. The same year the Chinese Collection came out, he also launched a perfume called Opium. Though it quickly became a bestseller, Opium—along with it associations of the Opium Wars’ dark legacy—met fierce backlash in the Chinese-American community.

Chinese Americans later formed a group called the American Coalition Against Opium and Drug Abuse, demanding Saint Laurent change the perfume’s name and apologize for “his insensitivity to Chinese history and Chinese Americans concerns.”

Yves Saint Laurent en compagnie d’une courtisane habillée en vêtements traditionnels lors de son premier voyage au Japon, Kyoto, avril 1963 © Droits réservés
Image: Courtesy Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris

The Algerian-born Saint Laurent, who died a decade ago, did travel to Asia—he visited Japan in 1963 and 1975. Samuel said he went to Kyoto to learn about Japanese traditional culture and textile weaving, which can be seen in the Japanese collection at the exhibition. While the couturier did set foot in Japan to learn about and offer his own interpretation of kimonos, China only lived in his dreams. He told Elle in 1995:

“Beijing, however, remains a dazzling memory. The China that I had so often interpreted in my designs was exactly as I had imagined it. All I need for my imagination to blend into a place or a landscape is a picture book […] I don’t feel any need to go there. I have already dreamt about it so much.”