Timeless and iconic: the Bowes Museum hosts UK’s first ever Yves Saint Laurent retrospective
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.