The Yves St. Laurent quote I’ve always loved the most is, “I have always believed that fashion was not only to make women more beautiful, but also to reassure them, give them confidence.” Now he uttered zingier lines to be sure, but with this one he articulated what he did best—and most generously—for the women of the world.

I think I was 30 when I bought my first YSL tuxedo, or “Le Smoking” as it is known. It was in Knightsbridge at the Rive Gauche boutique near Harrod’s, and I literally counted the minutes until I could wear it that very night. The jacket was so well cut, the pants so well tailored, I felt sexier and more powerful—more French!—than I had ever felt in my life. My friend André Leon Talley once referred to the “felinity” of YSL’s clothes. I didn’t even know it was a word (it is), but I knew immediately what he meant. You don’t have to be in a jersey jumpsuit (though YSL made those too) to feel like a very lithe and mysterious cat. Think Charlotte Rampling or Catherine Deneuve, or the great French actress Fanny Ardant—all looking about as female as you can get in YSL’s earth-shaking version of a man’s dinner jacket.

Since that first outing, I’ve owned three different incarnations of “Le Smoking,” and at least half a dozen suits that lend me boundless confidence, just as he had in mind. When I was profiling then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for Vogue I wore a skirt suit of lightweight menswear plaid with jet buttons and satin lapels to a NATO summit in Madrid. Even non-fashion folk noticed its distinctive silhouette (those sharp shoulders!) and happy mix of the masculine and the feminine. At one point, the late, great New York Times reporter, looked at me hard and said, “That’s by that fellow who used to design for Dior.”

Near the London Rive Gauche boutique, there’s a shop called Micheline Arcier that sells all sorts of aromatic elixirs, and I went to it while my pants were being quickly hemmed. At the time, Andre partial to Arcier’s Exotic and Uplifting bath potions, so I toted over a big bag of the stuff on the plane to Paris where I was going to meet him (this was long before the shoe bomber ruined all our lives). He was grateful for the package and I was a lot more grateful that I had bought that tuxedo. I have no idea what I thought I could possibly have worn while imbibing Pimm’s Royales in the Ritz bar with Andre or while dining at the impossibly chic Italian restaurant that was once his favorite.

I’ll never forget the St. Laurent couture dress he showed me on that trip. It was made of tissue thin silk taffeta printed with a bare hint of watercolor flowers and had a tight bodice with a wide, low-cut, almost square neckline. Short in the front, it was long in the back where it ballooned out; from behind, you would have thought it a very airy ball gown. It weighed almost nothing—there was no petticoat and no lining—yet the skirt held its shape perfectly and did exactly what it was supposed to do. Touching it, I was reminded of legendary Polly Mellen, who used to weep while stroking the hem of a particularly well-made garment. To say that Polly was dramatic is an understatement, but with this dress I finally got what she was on about. I wept too. For the first time, I understood the difference between the work of a really talented designer and the work of an actual genius.

And now, I can’t wait to get over to Paris and see the current Rive Gauche show, where many “Le Smokings” are on display. It may well be time for another one, after all. Not surprisingly, current YSL designer Stefano Pilaii has kept them in his arsenal and all of us can use a dose of what they still provide—the confidence and assurance that the master promised.

 

About Julia Reed

Julia Reed is a columnist at Garden & Gun magazine and a contributing editor at Elle Décor. She also contributes to The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, and The New York Times, and makes frequent appearances on MSNBC. She is the author of five books, including But Mama Always Put Vodka in the Sangria, Adventures in Eating, Drinking and Making Merry and One Man’s Folly, The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood.

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