Fans of fashion history have until 25 October to make the pilgrimage to what may count as England’s remotest major museum, which has staged a remarkable coup by bagging the UK’s first ever Yves Saint Laurent retrospective. The Bowes Museum is a vast French château plonked improbably down next to the pretty little north-country market town of Barnard Castle, surrounded by the spectacularly beautiful landscape of upper Teesdale. Built in the mid-19th century by John and Joséphine Bowes to house their vast treasury of art, furniture and porcelain, the museum also has a superb fashion collection. Joséphine was a French actress and the couple spent most of their lives in Paris (where John bought her a theatre), so the connection with Yves Saint Laurent actually makes brilliant sense.
It’s certainly a thrilling exhibition, tracing the precociously talented Saint Laurent’s stratospheric rise from dreamy schoolboy (the show includes some of the paper mannequins he dressed in cut-out couture) to Christian Dior’s right-hand man and successor, before setting up on his own with his long-time partner Pierre Bergé, the business brains behind YSL. Every aspect of Saint Laurent’s 40-year career is represented, from the original ‘Le Smoking’ tuxedo to his enchantingly bright-eyed celebrations of Mondrian and pop, and his effortlessly stylish sketches for the runway shows, still pinned with sample fabrics; there's even an entire wall of hats in every shape and size, revealing that his imagination was every bit as fertile when it came to accessories.
Introducing the show, Bergé – now in his 80s – rather touchingly described their relationship as one in which ‘creativity always came first. We were never motivated by business: the business was only a success because of Yves’ creative genius.’ If only more ‘creative’ businesses could say the same today.