This Summer We’re Channelling: Léa Seydoux in “Saint Laurent”

Léa Seydoux in “Saint Laurent”, 2014. Mandarin Films, EuropaCorp

One July afternoon in 1968, Yves Saint Laurent met Loulou de la Falaise. They met at a tea party at the house of Fernando Sanchez at the Place de Furstenberg, in Paris. Fernando was part of Saint Laurent’s closed and exclusive world, his entourage, his clique, an old concept in Paris fashion. More than being a group of people who formed the beau monde, trapped in their own arrogant self-obsession, partaking recklessly of the excess, alcohol, drugs and casual sex that abounded in Paris in the 70’s, the clique also enabled designers to infiltrate walks of life hardly accessible to them. It was a way of establishing a link between them and the society, between them and the people who wore their clothes, and, especially in the case of Yves Saint Laurent, between him and the streets. For the designer, who was very reclusive, his clique represented an extension of his world that was divided between his fashion house and his home, bringing him a touch of reality while at the same time preserving the mystique of the name Yves Saint Laurent.

“That afternoon in July 1968, there was a young girl floating around the apartment, giggling madly behind a dandelion puff of hair,” recounts Alicia Drake in her book, The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, the moment Yves met Loulou de la Falaise. “She had the face and poise of a Burne-Jones portrait with none of the passive tragic overtones. She was filled with a sort of electric vitality. She was stoned and ravishing in Ossie Clark chiffon tunic and matching satin fly-away trousers, headscarf around her head and beads around her neck. […] He took in everything about her – the Bakst-inspired fauna print on chiffon, the way she stood with one arm flung up behind her against the door jamb, the wide-set blue eyes and narrow bone-structure. His eye was drawn to her tiny wrists and a bracelet she was wearing which he could have sworn was one of those metal bands they put on the corner of tables to hold down the tablecloth in the wind. It was; Loulou had taken it off the table at the Bistro Petit Saint Benoît and wore it as a Paris talisman.”

Léa Seydoux in “Saint Laurent”, 2014. Mandarin Films, EuropaCorp

In Marrakech, the wonder boy from Oran discovered, or rediscovered, the light, other colours, in the street, on the walls, in the clothing of the women of the Atlas. But Loulou was right there from early on, too. After their meeting in Paris, Yves invited Loulou to Marrakech, “where she arrived with a duffle bag out of which she pulled sarong after sarong after scrap of fabric, astonishing everyone with her outfits and imaginations”. She breathed new air, and colour, and fantasy and her own world into his aesthetic. She would become his inspiration, his muse, his motivation, his provocation. Yves’ style was French through and through. She challenged it with her eclectic tastes. She brought the outside world into the exclusive and closed world of Saint Laurent.

“She was a catalyst in Yves’ rediscovery of colour,” writes Alicia Drake. Influenced by Chanel, Saint Laurent had only used colour timidly in his collections – “There’s never any colour in Paris,” illustrator Joe Eula recounted the shouts of the press in one of his storyboards before an YSL show. “He had a phenomenal sense of colour,” Loulou is cited in the book, “but he needed me to jerk it out of his system. He always had it in him because he was brought up in colour, but then there was all that sort of good education and Parisian conformity. Most people think that if they use colour it won’t be comme in faut and I think I showed him that colour was not vulgar. I think I opened the doors for him. That is what creativity is: you use people to open doors that are your own. You do not copy other people, but they make things accessible within you.”

And Yves knew that he needed her and the mesmerising effect that she projected to feed his imagination and creativity. He had always, and always would, surrounded himself with women. He loved women, he loved to observe them and learn from them what they wanted. His obsession was not with fashion, but with the inner nature of women, and that was his radical change. Loulou “came along bearing both the lineage of the old world so dear to every couturier and, crucially, the cool swing of London.” She had both aristocratic bearing and free will, both innate elegance and excess, both beauty and dark sensuality, both mystery and enthusiasm. She had the wilderness and rebelliousness of the streets in her. Saint Laurent had already sensed that, he had already turned towards ready-to-wear because it was an opening on everyday life he personally had nothing to do with, and yet presented women with what they needed to change themselves and their style and their life and be free. And he knew how to discern the appeal of the new generation represented by Loulou.

Léa Seydoux and Gaspard Ulliel in “Saint Laurent”, 2014. Mandarin Films, EuropaCorp

The 1970s found haute couture at a crossroads. For the first time, its relevance was fervently questioned. Aristocracy and wealth had become démodé, “today only personality counts… ravishing personalities are most riveting things in the world – conversation, people’s interests, the atmosphere that they create around them,” Diana Vreeland proclaimed. Ready-to-wear was starting to dictate what women should wear. Alicia Drake’s book paints a profound, dramatic and truthful portrait of those times in her book (having Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld center stage), of the beauty and ugliness, fun and tragedy, seduction and stinginess of fashion, and its deep roots in and influence on everything surrounding it, from history and art, to politics, and especially to everything happening in the world.

Loulou de la Falaise had both English and French heritage. Her mother, Maxime Birley, married a French count, Alain de la Falaise, and moved to Paris after the war where she “owned one pair of jeans and a push-up bra”. She started to work at Schiaparelli to make a living, then worked for Paquin and Faith and eventually became a styliste, the French term French designers prefer to designer, working freelance for the house of Chloé. Loulou had the independent spirit of her mother and she pursued her own path in fashion not only as a way to find her own independence, but to escape an unhappy childhood. After her parents’ divorce, she and her brother Alexis were sent to foster families and then to boarding school in England. She was 21 that summer that brought her to Paris. Loulou’s exuberance was a way to fight hardship; therein lies her vibrant force. “Loulou’s force also lay in her ability to cut herself off from reality and escape inside her imagination”.

“Saint Laurent”, 2014. Mandarin Films, EuropaCorp

Back in Paris, Yves Saint Laurent and Loulou de la Falaise became inseparable, both as friends, and at work, too. But, more importantly for the name of Yves Saint Laurent, Loulou became the embodiment of the YSL collections, of the YSL woman.

Whether it was her wedding look of golden-toed sandals worn over white socks, “huge white bouffant harem pants caught beneath the knee, white organza wrap, a mass of beads, a white turban stabbed with an apricot feather and large diamond brooch”, or her wedding ball outfit, “wrapped in an acre of midnight-blue chiffon shot with gold, bangles up and down her arms, teetering in a pair of high silver heels”, or her dressed in “a sharp black velvet jacket, waist cinched in a man’s belt, man’s white shirt, tartan scarf and diamond and jade earrings”, or her wearing the YSL Cossack hat and boots, or the gold tassels and pagoda shoulders from the Opium collection, Loulou de la Falaise met her own inherent, intuitive and incredible style with that of the genius of YSL, on the background of the changing times.

In the film Saint Laurent (2014), director Bertrand Bonello plunged into the era of effervescence and madness of the 1970s and into the mind, creative genius and demons of its leading designer, played with such intensity by Gaspard Ulliel. Léa Seydoux has the luminous presence and grace and exuberance to carry out the role of Loulou de la Falaise. Léa Seydoux is a modern Loulou de la Falaise. In contrast to Jalil Lespert’s film Yves Saint Laurent, released the same year and where Laura Smet played Loulou, Léa Seydoux’s character is truly seen as being part of Yves’ life. She is always there for him, as a friend, or in his studio, with her turban on, at every excess, every success and every devastating fall, just as it comes through in the book The Beautiful Fall – “We lived together for thirty years. I saw him more than any other person.”

Léa Seydoux and Gaspard Ulliel in “Saint Laurent”, 2014. Mandarin Films, EuropaCorp

Saint Laurent will forever be remembered for having made a cult out of ready-to-wear when he launched his Rive Gauche label to connect with the women in their every day wardrobes and their life on the street and for putting a large number of women into trousers, adapting many garments from the male wardrobes into female items – “You are the only one today, Mr. Saint Laurent,” one of the characters, a loyal client, trying on a trouser suit, hair let loose, hands in pockets, lipstick on at Yves’ own indications, says to him in the film Saint Laurent, referring to the way his clothes made woman feel and to the way they reflected the feeling of the time. It’s a beautiful moment in the film this one, when she is transformed right under our eyes, just through clothes and through being looked at by Yves.

But in 1976, the designer presented his haute couture Ballet Russes collection, which he later considered if not his best, most certainly his most beautiful – for the film, costume designer Anaïs Romand redid 35 pieces or so from the collection. Once again, it seemed that he set out to change the course of fashion and to set a new standard of luxury. “It was my answer to the press which had disqualified the haute couture trade as old fashioned and antiquated,” he would say. His sable-trimmed Cossack coats in gold lamé, bright babushka dresses, gypsy skirts piped in gold, luxuriously embroidered waistcoats and tunics, whisper-thin glittering blouses with full sleeves, and golden Cossack boots were inspired, Saint Laurent confessed, by everything from Delacroix’s odalisques, Ingres’s women, and van Eyck’s Woman with a Pearl, to Degas’s black-corseted ballerinas, the Civil War, and von Sternberg’s Dietrich. “For daywear, everything came from traditional cuts found in Russia, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Morocco. That was the source of the cutting that, along with colour, makes it youthful.” But I see Loulou de la Falaise in that collection, too. Beautiful excess and youth.

editorial sources: The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, by Alicia Drake; Yves Saint Laurent, by Fondation Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent; Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, by Lisa Immordino Vreeland; Eula, by Cathy Horyn



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