London Film Festival 2019 – Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections

Director: Olivier Meyrou

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

It is unusual for a fashion film to barely focus on the clothes, but big couture houses are also a business, one with hierarchies, disagreements and terrible pressures to deliver perfection. Olivier Meyrou’s documentary Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections is really an examination of co-founder and business partner Pierre Bergé and his attempts to keep the show on the road by protecting the last couturier of his generation from the administrative realities of a day-to-day fashion empire.

Filmed almost 20 years ago and only now able to be shown, Meyrou had unique access behind the scenes of at the small YSL salon in Paris where seamstresses, models, event planners and the man himself collided on a regular basis. If you take one thing away from Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections, it is how distinctly unglamorous the world of fashion really is and the low level of unease all employees experience under the exacting gaze of Monsieur Bergé.

Meyrou’s documentary has a slightly unpolished feel with grainy footage and occasional use of black and white giving an unvarnished angle on unfolding events that roughly follow a chronological sequence from first designs to Saint Laurent’s lifetime achievement award in New York and the parcelling-up of the collection ready to sell. There’s no suggestion that all of Meyrou’s footage relates to the same collection as it was shot over three years from 1998-2001 but there is a clear feel for the backroom activity necessary to keep the fashion-house at the top of its game.

Nowadays we would expect talking heads to reflect on the legacy of Yves Saint Laurent and at least for the names of the people in the film with their job titles to be flashed on screen but Meyrou avoids all of this which can be frustrating as timelines are fudged and the various roles in the business become increasingly blurry but it gives his approach an immersive quality which overtime starts to form a picture of the effort and skill involved in delivering multiple collections every year.

Saint Laurent himself emerges as a difficult figure, remote and almost dreamlike which his surviving partner describes as there but not there, with Bergé acting as a protector, keeping the designer away from the ugly side of their work and protecting his sensitive creatives instincts. As a result, lots of people are shouted at or express dissatisfaction with their own or other people’s work which suggests a workplace driven largely by fear but also perfectionism. Meyrou never shies away from the brutal reality and the frisson of anxiety that Saint Laurent’s all but silent presence confers.

It would have been interesting to reflect, almost two decades later, on the consequences of working for Saint Laurent and how his employees and partner now feel about the environment in which they operated. And while the film is framed as the ending of a particular period in French cultural history as the last couturier to run the house that bears his name, the brand survives and what this exposé means long after the last collections hit the catwalk.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October 

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Distinctly unglamorous

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