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More than a muse: How Loulou de La Falaise transformed Yves Saint Laurent

Updated 30th May 2018
Saint Laurent and De La Falaise backstage at the InterContinental hotel, Paris, in 1982.
Credit: Guy Marineau
More than a muse: How Loulou de La Falaise transformed Yves Saint Laurent
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
For more than three decades, French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent turned to his muse Loulou de La Falaise for inspiration. On most days, she could be found at his Paris studio, offering counsel and designing accessories for some of YSL's most iconic collections.
Ahead of this week's 10-year anniversary of Saint Laurent's death, a new book is delving into the life of one of his closest confidants. "Loulou & Yves" brings together first-hand accounts of the late De La Falaise from over 150 original interviews, accompanied by the previously published recollections of those who knew her best -- including Saint Laurent himself.
A force of fashion in her own right, De La Falaise stamped her mark on Saint Laurent's brand from the early 1970s until 2002, when her friend and employer retired from the industry.
"She's the sounding board," he is quoted as saying in the book. "I bounce ideas off her and they come back clearer and things begin to happen. She's never wrong."
Her day-to-day involvement as a designer sets her apart from history's other muses, according to the book's author, Christopher Petkanas.
"In the last decade, the term 'muse' has become, for the most part, a commercial relationship, with actresses being paid to wear dresses that aren't made on them," Petkanas said in a phone interview. "But there's no question that Loulou earned her salary 100 times over.
"It was a job, and she had real responsibilities beyond the accessories. She did the knitwear and she had total responsibility for the so-called 'cruise' and pre-fall collections. And then, in the early '90s when Mr. Saint Laurent is unwell, it fell to her and (studio director) Anne-Marie Muñoz to actually do the collections."

A fashion legacy

The book traces De La Falaise's sense of style back to her mother, Maxime -- herself a model and muse for Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli -- and grandmother, Rhoda.
"Her grandmother collected, on her travels, an extraordinary wardrobe," said Petkanas, who came to know De La Falaise while working as a fashion journalist in Paris during the 1980s. "In her childhood, Loulou had access to these amazing trunks of Indian saris, for example, which she raided and, in her teens, wowed London with.
De La Falaise (left), pictured with Yves Saint Laurent and his other longtime muse, Betty Catroux (right).
De La Falaise (left), pictured with Yves Saint Laurent and his other longtime muse, Betty Catroux (right). Credit: Guy Marineau
"She had what every reader of a fashion magazine wants -- and it's a very, very rare quality -- that is: she had personal style ... She never wore the look directly as it was shown on the catwalk."
It was, reportedly, this approach to fashion that caught the attention of Saint Laurent. "She is charm, poetry, excess, extravagance and elegance all in one blow," he is quoted as saying in Petkanas' book.
Why it matters: Haute couture
Having first met De La Falaise in the late 1960s, the fashion designer invited her to join his studio in 1972. With no professional training and little relevant experience, she spent her early years at the fashion house shadowing its namesake and offering advice where she could. But she quickly forged a more meaningful role designing accessories.
Known for using colorful glass beads and semi-precious stones in her creations, De La Falaise injected a dose of bohemia into the Saint Laurent look. Her whimsical jewelry helped make accessories more prominent in YSL's collections, leading to the creation of a Paris boutique dedicated solely to the brand's accoutrements.
"The single most historic Saint Laurent collection is the so-called 'Russian peasant' collection from 1976, which was very heavily dependent on her accessories," Petkanas said.
"When you say 'accessories' people think of jewelry, but it also means shawls, belts, hats, scarves, turbans and headscarves. The Yves Saint Laurent woman of today is a pile of bracelets, necklaces and towering hats -- and all of that is Loulou."

A collaborative relationship

An image from a 1975 Women's Wear Daily feature which described De La Falaise as "one of Paris' most unconventional -- and consistent -- young beauties."
An image from a 1975 Women's Wear Daily feature which described De La Falaise as "one of Paris' most unconventional -- and consistent -- young beauties." Credit: Guy Marineau
Petkanas' personal impressions of De La Falaise overlap with many of those he collected for his book -- charismatic, elusive, effortlessly stylish. Yet, for all the tales of glamour, the book depicts De La Falaise's life as one punctuated by unhappiness, adultery and excess.
"I think she utterly embodied 1970s decadence," Petkanas said. "She'd go out all night, but what was so amazing was that, no matter how late she went to bed, she had this enormous vigor and discipline, and was always able to get up the next morning and report to work.
"She said she always knew where to draw the line, but I'm not sure that's really quite true."
After Saint Laurent's retirement, De La Falaise launched her own jewelry and accessories brand, though it proved unsuccessful and she later declared herself bankrupt. But rather than portraying a figure who struggled to escape the shadow of one of the 20th century's greatest designers, Petkanas depicts an influential working relationship based on friendship and balance.
"We're a team, living and breathing in unison," the book quotes De La Falaise as saying. "Yves is the perfectionist, the genius. I'm his fall guy.
"I use some of his ideas and transform them into my ideas, and it makes another thing," she continued. "Then he sees it and uses my transformation, it's like a circle; we use each other, we feed each other."