HORST P. HORST/CONDÉ NAST

The Virtual Duality of Yves Saint Laurent

In Paris and Marrakech, two new museums tell a complex—and more complete—story of the most influential designer of the 20th century.

On the first day of Paris Fashion Week in September, the Yves Saint Laurent flagship on Avenue Montaigne was crowded with visiting fashion editors and shoppers dressed like fashion editors. The white marble monolith was designed by former creative director Hedi Slimane, who, in a fit of rebranding in 2012, removed the Yves from the house’s name (sparking “Ain’t Laurent Without Yves” protest tees). Today the ground floor is filled with 100 different handbags. The most sought-after? A $2,700, wallet-sized shoulder bag from the current designer, Anthony Vaccarello, emblazoned with three-inch gold initials of the house’s late namesake. “Which Y-S-L should I get?” was a constant refrain.

Those initials—Saint Laurent’s slithering, undulating monogram—formed the company’s first logo, designed by Adolphe Mouron Cassandre in 1961, the year Saint Laurent and his longtime business and romantic partner, Pierre Bergé, founded their couture business on the heels of Saint Laurent’s dismissal from the house of Christian Dior. With a mix of sans and serif, roman and italic, this branding was in place when Saint Laurent debuted his first show, which included the first feminized peacoat. He went on to create many other firsts in the world of fashion. The first women’s tuxedo, his “Le Smoking.” The first safari collection. The first designer ready-to-wear. He was the first to set fashion shows to music, the first designer to model in his own fragrance’s ad campaign. And, in 1983, Saint Laurent became the first living designer to be honored with a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Saint Laurent and Bergé sold their business to François-Henri Pinault’s Gucci Group (what would become Kering) in 1999, and he mounted his last couture show in 2002. The designer died in 2008 at age 71, following years of decline after a very public battle with drugs and alcohol. Over his 50-year career, Saint Laurent created a template for what nearly every luxury-goods company wants today: a superstar designer who embodies everything the house stands for. A formula that seems, with the current state of revolving doors at fashion houses, very hard to replicate. And, with Bergé’s partnership, he walked the line between pure creativity and commercial shrewdness. Fashion, said Saint Laurent at his last press conference, “isn’t quite an art, but it does need an artist to exist.”

Bergé, who was widely credited with both harnessing and at times (literally) bottling the talent of Saint Laurent (Opium is the biggest perfume launch in fragrance history)—as well as rigorously defending the legacy, long after their romantic partnership ended—died last year, just weeks before Saint Laurent was bestowed with two new museums: Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris and Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech.

Exterior of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech.

Nicolas Mathéus

Ten minutes from the Saint Laurent Paris flagship sits Saint Laurent’s couture maison, on a sleepy end of Avenue Marceau. Behind a traditional Haussmann façade and gold-and-glass doors, up a short, carpeted staircase, past a quadrant of silk-screen portraits of Saint Laurent by Warhol, hangs the original sketch of the YSL logo by Cassandre. It’s an appropriately discreet entrance to what is now the Yves Saint Laurent museum.

C’est beau, non?” asked Olivier Flaviano, the museum’s director, when I met him before the institution opened in October. The lithe 32-year-old bears a striking resemblance to a young Saint Laurent. Flaviano stood in front of the six-by-nine-inch Cassandre drawing inside the entryway, dwarfed by the 15-foot ceilings and chandeliers the size of elephants. “This is where the clients were received,” he explained. “Turning this from a maison de couture into a museum is like opening an artist’s home. It’s not just to recount Yves Saint Laurent’s story”—Flaviano always refers to the late creator with his three names, as if to remind the shoppers back on Avenue Montaigne that those initials stand for something—“but the history of haute couture in the 20th century.”

There was a dusty, estate-sale smell in the air, mixed with sweet incense. (“Opium,” I was told by an assistant with a wink.) The decor in the maison is how Saint Laurent left it, the swirling banister, the enormous chandeliers, the Baroque mirror, the sconces, paintings, and what looks like a cigarette burn in the green carpeting. Saint Laurent’s desk remains cluttered for upstairs visitors.

Flaviano turned on his wing-tipped heel. A smoky glass door opened, unveiling Saint Laurent’s contributions not just to fashion but to Western civilization. “Here they are,” Flaviano said, arriving at a group of mannequins. “The first tuxedo, safari jacket, jumpsuit, trench coat—the Yves Saint Laurent style and how particular it was, a style that he defined in the ’60s and worked and reworked until the end of his career.”

Flaviano walked quickly past sketches. “Yves Saint Laurent always and only started from a sketch, even had the model in mind as he drew,” he called over his shoulder, passing by a pantsuit from the ’60s. At that time, the notion that women could wear pants was groundbreaking, he noted. Saint Laurent gave them permission. “He accompanied women in their emancipation.” And never stopped, Flaviano observed, saying that Saint Laurent prided himself on the refinement of ideas. “Mr. Bergé used to say, ‘Yves worked for 40 years, but he could have stopped 10 years after he started. He had already said everything.’” There are many hats on display (“He designed a hat for almost every look”), but there are no handbags. “Yves Saint Laurent was somebody, not just a brand for bags.”

Looks inspired by Morocco on view at the museum.

Luc Castel

We stopped in front of a collection of disparate looks: a toreador look from 1979, an African-inspired dress with a raffia hem. “We call this his ‘imaginary travels’—his inspirations from Spain, Russia, Africa, China,” Flaviano said. “It was never a copy of historic costumes, but an idea he’d seen, and he created something else.” We pause in front of a vibrant orange-and-pink embroidered cape, two colors that should not be so wonderfully juxtaposed. “And here you have the Bougainvillea cape. Yves Saint Laurent discovered Morocco in 1966 with Pierre Bergé. This is when he discovered colors.”

Not color. Colors.

Mr. Bergé used to say: "Yves worked for 40 years, but he could have stopped 10 years after he started. He had already said everything."

It rained for two days when Yves and Pierre and Pierre came to Marrakech for the first time,” Quito Fierro told me three days later in Morocco. Fierro (whose mother knew the couple, and whom Bergé referred to as his “adopted son from Morocco”) walked through the Jardin Majorelle, an actual oasis next to the new Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech. Wind blows down off the mountains, across the medina, and through the palm trees and bougainvillea. Fierro now works for the museum, and explains how the couple discovered their second home. “They rarely left their hotel room at the Mamounia the first few days they were here. Then they woke up, and it’s a clear day. The sun was out. They could see the Atlas Mountains and they bought a house.”

For Saint Laurent, as Fierro and others told me, Paris was process, an execution of work. But Marrakech was inspiration, creation, and, in many ways, the setting of a personal revolution. The world in the late ’60s was in upheaval, and Saint Laurent was not immune to that. The couple began coming to Marrakech regularly, buying one house after another, befriending the era’s other bold-faced hippies like Mick Jagger and Talitha Getty, eventually arriving on these grounds in 1980 and buying the estate of the great painter Jacques Majorelle.

For about 20 years, Saint Laurent did all of his sketching here, when he would come to recuperate after his haute couture shows and start creating the next one, drawing for two straight weeks and then returning to Paris.

Saint Laurent’s ashes were brought here after his death, as were Bergé’s. Fierro stopped at Saint Laurent’s and Bergé’s memorial, where a Roman column hovered. Tourists and fashion fans took selfies, most of them wearing a version of something that was radical when Yves created it, from sheer bow blouses to full-on Russian peasant looks. “We have to tell the whole story,” Fierro said. “There’s light and dark. And the story is not just in Paris.”

Jewelry and accessories, along with portraits of Saint Laurent, in the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech.

Fondation Jardin Majorelle/Photo Nicolas Mathéus

A few steps from the garden down Rue Yves Saint Laurent is the new institution designed to tell the rest of the story. The modern, sloping, low-slung structure, by architects Karl Fournier and Olivier Marty from Studio KO, blends seamlessly into the neighborhood, matching the warm clay color of the city. The idea for the museum, which also opened in October, arose after an exhibition in the garden seven years ago showing the influence of the city on Saint Laurent’s work.

“We had 40,000 visitors in under three months,” Madison Cox told me as I walked into the dark foyer of the space. Cox is the president of the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent, the umbrella organization that runs the institutions in Paris and Marrakech. A well-known American landscape gardener, he married Bergé last year. “A large majority were Moroccans,” Cox said. “They started to realize the importance of their culture in Saint Laurent’s work. Many didn’t even know his work, to be honest with you. I mean, they knew the name. There was a certain sense of national pride. I won’t be presumptuous, but maybe they were saying, ‘He’s one of us.’”

The inaugural show in the 43,000-square-foot museum— which also includes a research library and a theater—picks up where the Paris museum leaves off. The presentation is as slick as Paris’s is quaint, with floating runway models drifting across black walls like holograms, Saint Laurent’s voice floating above Saint Laurent’s couture, caftans and ball gowns in vibrant colors, shades that came straight from the streets, rooftops, and gardens he first fell in love with in 1966. The juxtapositions of Saint Laurent’s work are as jarring as his two lives seemed to be. It can be hard to reconcile. The earnest, soulful, Moroccan-inspired collection of caftans opposite a dress inspired by Mondrian hanging and spotlighted on a wall like a crucifix, across from framed pages of the ad campaign in which he posed nude. They tell a complex and more complete story.

“The duality comes through,” said Cox of the two sides of the couturier. Cox first met Saint Laurent and Bergé in the ’70s. “Saint Laurent was born in Algeria and there was this concept of what Paris was.” Cox described Paris as Saint Laurent’s idealized Oz. “He had a vision of an elegant woman, all buttoned up. His work in Marrakech represented the fantasy.”

Cox sees the worldwide interest in the opening of these institutions as both a validation of Saint Laurent’s contributions and a longing for a more free time. “Fashion has become big business,” he said, acknowledging that fashion exhibitions have as well. “The stakes in fashion are so high today. So I think with the response to these museums, there is a nostalgia for a period that was seen as more creative.”

I followed Cox out to the courtyard, into the midday sun. He squinted through his eyeglasses, staring at the stone signage marking the entrance to the facility. The Cassandre logo hung there, this time the y, s, and l rendered in four-foot-tall black iron. “Perhaps Saint Laurent’s work is resonating right now because we’re living in such a disposable world,” he said. “Everything is used and then thrown out and replaced, and used and thrown out again. But in the work that Saint Laurent and Bergé left behind, in the creation, there is a wonderful sense of permanence.”