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'The Beautiful Fall': a tale of two rivals, destined to shine

Illustration by Kelsey Dockery

“Fashion is an endless process of elimination: in and out, now and then, new and old, right and wrong. Being among the chosen provides the nervous adrenaline on which fashion runs.”
An excerpt from the non-fiction book, “The Beautiful Fall,” which takes you behind the scenes for France’s two most famous designers, describes not only the fast-paced life of couture, but also the fast-paced life of Yves Saint Laurent, creative director of his namesake label, and Karl Lagerfeld, chief designer of Chanel (the job that would ultimately tear the two apart).
The fashion world in Paris in the 1970s was like the Hollywood elite today. If you weren’t a part of the fashion crowd, you weren’t in at all. And at the center of the couture kingdom were Laurent and Lagerfeld – two of the most talented artists of the time, and two of the biggest rivals in fashion history.
The old adage, keep your friends close and your enemies closer, couldn’t ring more true in this case. Before they became fashions biggest rivals, Laurent and Lagerfeld were great friends, meeting at the International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition in 1954. Laurent, 18, won first place and Lagerfeld, 21, received second place in coat design.
Imagine being in the presence of Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain and Hurbert de Givenchy, the original creators of the lines we know and love today. We can’t, but Lagerfeld and Laurent could. The former were judges at the competition and launched the careers of today’s designers.
At the tender age of 21, Laurent took over as couturier (creator of original garments) for one of Paris’ biggest couture houses, Dior. In a sea of designers over the age of 50, Laurent was the youngest head designer France had ever seen.
In a matter of months, Laurent changed the Dior woman that Christian Dior himself had created. Laurent gave the collection youth and spirit using free-flowing designs and shorter hemlines. At the same time, he kept in mind the ideals Christian had set forth: a changing silhouette each season to keep the momentum going and the audience intrigued.
Laurent’s first collection for Dior was on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily, serving as his coronation into Paris.
When it came to his fashion and his career, Laurent was in charge and in focus. But when it came to his life and him as a human being, Laurent was a shell. He let people control himself and did nothing to stop it. But when it came to fashion, Laurent knew exactly who he was.
Perhaps the greatest influence of Laurent was his lifelong boyfriend and business partner, Pierre Bergé, who’s voice was behind every design and sketch.
On Dec. 4, 1961, Laurent opened the house of Yves Saint Laurent (YSL), with the iconic image of the navy blue peacoat, wide leg white pants and babouche (moroccan inspired) flat slippers, making fashion history.
Laurent stood on a pedestal. He could do no wrong. The magazines loved him, the models wanted to walk for him and the wannabes wanted to just hang out with him.
He didn’t just create a brand, Laurent created the fashion show we know today: the raised catwalk, the hair and makeup, the production. He turned a simple showing of gowns into a spectacle.
Laurent was able to create not only beautiful clothes, but also an emotion. He had the ability to touch people, not through the colors or the newness, but the power to stir and evoke emotion. Laurent did everything he could to stand out from his enemy, Lagerfeld.
Lagerfeld grew up in a small town in Germany; any other facts about his childhood are widely unknown. No one really knows much about how he grew up, just that he arrived.
Lagerfeld was so adamant about forgetting his past and moving on, so much so that he made up a past to match Laurent, which, I think, lead to his ultimate jealousy of Laurent.
While Laurent’s fame grew quickly, it took Lagerfeld longer to understand where he stood in the fashion world. He moved to Paris in 1953, and in 1955, he was hired as an apprentice at Pierre Balmain. After three years, he moved on to Jean Patou, where he designed two couture collections under the house’s name.
But unlike many designers who look to France for inspiration, Lagerfeld looked to America. It was the Americans he met who taught him that fashion was no longer a question of hemlines but a question of attitude.
In 1960, Lagerfeld produced a show of skirts that were shorter than ever before.
Four years later, Lagerfeld moved to the house of Chloe, where he stayed as a designer for years. He also did freelance with Italian power-house Fendi.
In 1983, Lagerfeld finally got his big break. He took over as chief designer for Chanel, one of the greatest French couture houses.
It was this job that ultimately ended the friendship between Lagerfeld and Laurent. After all, Mademoiselle Chanel herself declared Laurent her rightful heir on national television shortly before her death.
Lagerfeld and Laurent were perfect enemies and polar opposites. While Laurent drank and experimented with drugs, Lagerfeld never drank or dabbled in drugs. Lagerfeld was working constantly, always finding new inspiration.
Laurent always had an idea of what he wanted the Yves Saint Laurent woman to be. The YSL woman was easily distinguished by her scent, her red nails, her dark lipstick and most importantly, her sex appeal and confidence.
But Lagerfeld never had such an ideal woman he wanted to impose on his collection, but rather he had a vision of himself that he wished to impose on the world.
He tried to establish a namesake house, but later found he succeeded better when designing under someone else’s ideals, rather than his own.
“The Beautiful Fall” takes you on the journey that was the lives of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. Although it is non-fiction, the wild, scandalous, unbelievable lives of these two designers reads like fiction.
It takes you through the earliest days of their careers, all the way through until the day Laurent retired. It takes you through every emotional breakdown, every near drug overdose and every relationship the two designers ever had.
If you are a fashion lover or even a fashion appreciator, “The Beautiful Fall” is one book that will shed new light on the world of fashion you once knew. It is both inspiring and dark, uplifting and sad.
“With the thrill of being chosen comes the fear of the fall from grace. Fashion’s compulsion for change means it is only ever a matter of time before you are out, rather than in, you are wrong rather than right.”
Fashion is a combination of euphoria and fear. “The Beautiful Fall” shows these ideals, through the eyes of two of the world’s greatest designers.