‘Yves Saint Laurent: Line and Expression’ Arrives at the OCMA

Sketching is now an integral part of the creative process for many fashion designers, but that wasn’t always the case. It was once seen as a medium best suited to illustrating finished designs in the press and executed by a class of professional fashion illustrators. Yves Saint Laurent: Line and Expression, an exhibition co-organized by the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech and Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris that opens tomorrow at the Orange County Museum of Art, explores the pioneering role that French designer Yves Saint Laurent’s passion for drawing played in transforming both the role of illustration and the trajectory of modern fashion.

In the early 20th century, couturiers from Madeleine Vionnet to Cristóbal Balenciaga and Madame Grès approached their craft through fabric, draping directly on mannequins. Building on the work of his mentor, Christian Dior—who famously drew the New Look collection in graphic lines—Saint Laurent made illustration core to the fashion house he established in 1962. During his twice-a-year stays in his beloved Marrakech, Saint Laurent would fill suitcases with preparatory drawings in 2B pencil, which he would then share with his studio team upon his return to Paris to begin fashioning the new collections.

Yves Saint Laurent’s drawings on display at the exhibition.

Courtesy of the Orange County Museum of Art

Courtesy of the Orange County Museum of Art

Line and Expression explores Saint Laurent’s simple but highly evocative illustrations, which reveal the genesis of his minimalist aesthetic—when the heaviness of post-war fashion gave way to a more liberated body of work. Co-curators Olivier Saillard and Gaël Mamine selected 104 of the designer’s sketches for some of his most iconic styles like the Pop Art cocktail dresses, Ballet Russes peasant dresses, and le smokings from a trove of more than 60,000 preserved by the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent. “Yves Saint Laurent was really into the process of creating something new through drawing,” says Mamine. “Through just three or four lines, you feel something really strong and pure.”

Framed in blonde wood and hung at a single height across four galleries, the drawings play off of a selection of haute couture and ready-to-wear clothing and jewelry pieces. (Mamine calls it “a dialogue between sketches and garments.”) Taken together, they highlight Saint Laurent’s enduring interest in several key themes throughout his four decade career: menswear tailoring, the juxtaposition of black and blue in a single look, and brilliant swaths of color on clean-lined silhouettes.

Courtesy of the Orange County Museum of Art

Courtesy of the Orange County Museum of Art

The exhibition’s path from Morocco to a contemporary art museum in Costa Mesa, California wasn’t exactly obvious. OCMA’s CEO and director Heidi Zuckerman caught it last year at Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech while on vacation. “I was just walking through the show as a tourist and I was really captivated by how Yves Saint Laurent made preparatory drawings like a lot of sculptors and painters do,” she recalls. She knew instantly that it fit with her program since joining OCMA in 2021 of “looking at fashion as part of art.”

Once Zuckerman got home, she placed a cold call to Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech to convince the museum to let Line and Expression travel. There was another reason she knew it would be a good fit: OCMA is just across the street from the Southern California shopping mecca South Coast Plaza. “There’s a sexiness paired with an elegance to Yves Saint Laurent’s work that I thought would just be a really great fit for our community,” she says.

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