The Remembering Rope - Part Twelve - The Gloss Magazine

The Remembering Rope – Part Twelve

Polly Devlin continues her series on collecting. This month: Yves Saint Laurent’s prints…

When I saw this drawing I fell in love with it. It’s by Yves Saint Laurent, one of the greatest names in fashion. He sent these drawings as small posters to favoured fashion editors at Christmas. I first saw one on the desk of Grace Coddington, the star editor in the fashion room at British Vogue. It and all the others have become famous icons and reproductions, still available to buy.

I am a collector. I buy something because I have fallen for it. It speaks to me. Then I see another and I’m off like a hare out of the traps. And so with these drawings, still the epitome of style and the height of fashion.

I never had much of a view about fashion and its importance thereof, which is paradoxical in the extreme considering that I worked at the heart, well, maybe the lungs, of the most famous fashion magazine in the world – three years as features editor at British Vogue and two at American Vogue under the utterly different and brilliant editors Beatrix Miller, who cared passionately about words, and Diana Vreeland, who was obsessive about fashion.

Virginia Woolf wrote: Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us. I think looking back at my life in Vogue that I was a baby loose in a grown-up world. In Presbyterian Ulster no-one was much into vain trifles. There was a lot of gabardine around (what is gabardine?) and our uniforms, dresses and skirts – we never ever wore trousers – had big stitched-up hems so that as you grew they could be let down revealing a nasty dusty line and when such clothes stopped being Sunday Best, they drifted to the next child down. So I thought I had nothing to do with fashion.

I wrote of the worlds of art, of literature, the theatre, movies – but of course they were all in the culture of fashion since we move within the current of our environment. There was no such thing as celebrity as such. If someone was celebrated it was for achievement, not just for being famous. I was enamoured of words and with writers, and although I generally had my choice of people to interview I was sometimes made to interview a movie star which bored me silly and was usually a lesson in egotism and banality. My big-time fashion moment was with Barbra Streisand in Paris on the Richard Avedon haute couture shoot for American Vogue. It has gone down in the annals.

So I was unschooled in the rarefied fashion atmosphere of Vogue. Of course I saw the glamorous fashion editors whizzing past down the corridors with racks of clothes but they were out of reach and lifestyle. One of my friends was Jean Shrimpton and I should think that was also part of the reason I was so uninterested – anything she put on looked miraculous so there was no use trying. I worked a lot with David Bailey and I remember him ranting on about women who didn’t make the most of themselves. I was so dumb or innocent I didn’t realise he was pinpointing me until Jean enlightened me.

I became educated in the political, economic and social ramifications of fashion because of two radicalising events. One was when Gloria Steinem came into my office to talk and change our view of our expectations and the actuality of our life. Playboy Bunnies were in the ascendancy and beautiful as she was, Steinem had become one to explore what it was like to be on the receiving end of male attention as a Bunny. Doofus that I was I DIDN’T INTERVIEW her. The other event was the publication of The Female Eunuch in 1970 by perhaps the most important woman of the 20th century, Germaine Greer. Fashion took its place in feminism. Fashion became Feminism.

Another renowned fashion editor, a tiny darting intimidating older woman, Claire Rendlesham, opened the first Yves Saint Laurent boutique in Bond Street which immediately became the lodestar for fashionistas. In there one could easily lose heart – the clothes were size eights and tens. The 1960s were a horrible fashion era for ordinary-sized women – that is to say that many women were, as now, size 12 or 14, yet our avatars were a skinny androgynous skeletal adolescent called Twiggy and female constructs called Dolly Birds. I’d watch Helmut Newton, who I thought was possibly the nastiest piece of work I’d ever encountered (except for the said Bailey) using his images of women’s bodies as his photopervertplaythings without caring a scrap about their dignity or decency. The women played along – they knew no better or thought they too were cool and edgy. They were often just butt-naked nasty.

But what am I talking about? I was exploited and manipulated to a horrible degree by the people who ran Vogue. I wrote nearly every piece in the magazine on a pitiful salary of ten pounds a week yet David Bailey would get hundreds for the accompanying picture. That is why the arrival of feminism was such a shock and such an angry-making movement, revealing how we had been wronged and continued to be wronged by the Patriarchy.

So back to collecting and that YSL drawing above, back to living in Gloucestershire and back to a dinner party where I sat beside a charming Frenchman. A Johnny Foreigner was as rare as a hen’s tooth in the shires and he reminded me of how much I missed cosmopolitan life and also that I was beginning to sound like the Queen. Jean-Louis was a most civilised and agreeable man and later we were invited to dinner in his house. His chic wife was a wonderful cook. Over time we became friends.

One evening he produced an envelope containing three fine line fashion drawings, sketches of models in Vogue, on slips of paper signed YSL. They were accomplished drawings though Yves could only have been a very young boy when he drew them. During the Algerian war, Jean-Louis’s father (a soldier) had been posted to Oran and by chance the family lived in the Saint Laurents’ former house. Jean-Louis found these fashion drawings in a bureau and because of my connections with Vogue, presented them to me. I was bouleversée. I showed them to my editor at Vogue and she assumed I was giving them to her. I bit my tongue. It’s still bleeding! But the find had triggered the collector urge lying like the Kraken in my psyche. I started collecting Yves Saint Laurent. Not his clothes but these wonderful coloured Love print presentations.

Grace Coddington, who became creative editor at American Vogue, gave me that first one I had glimpsed on her desk. So that started an obsession. Eventually I screwed my courage to the sticking place and asked Lady Rendlesham at the YSL boutique if I could have another and to my surprise she saved me one every Christmas. But I’m still missing one. The first. The hunt is not over.


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