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Style is Eternal – Yves Saint Laurent exhibition launch night at Bowes Museum

I have to admit I’d gotten myself into a bit of a state about this event. Maybe it was the fact that Bowes Museum, in my native North East had been chosen as the venue for the first retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent’s work in the UK. Or because Pierre Berge, the business brains behind the YSL empire was in attendance. Or the excitement of getting so close to some of the most iconic outfits of the 20th century. And not to mention the dilemma about what to wear.  Luckily all of the anxiety fell away upon arriving at the stunning French chateau, a hidden gem in the North East that definitely deserves to get its moment in the spotlight. 
The scene was set with classic cars parked on the courtyard, and very well dressed people were milling about, enjoying the evening sun. Walking up the grand staircase in the museum’s lobby to the first floor is a joy in normal circumstances, but on this occasion, dressed up to the nines in a floor length black evening gown with a vintage YSL heart shaped pendant around my neck and killer heels, it was more than a little bit special. Looking down at the invitation, the reminder that Pierre Berge was making a speech and then seeing that Hot Chip were DJing was enough to nearly make me trip up, but I regained my composure. (Must not fall on the grand staircase) The hall which houses the silver swan was already filling up with guests – I’d already spotted some amazing vintage pieces being sported by obviously thrilled fans. Admiring the European Decorative art I found myself standing a stone’s throw from Pierre. I was desperate to go and try to impress him with my French but he was surrounded by museum staff and preparing to make his speech. Even just being in the same room as him was a massive thrill. 

After some champagne, delicious canapés and a performance from the Royal Northern Sinfonia Wind Quartet we were welcomed by Sir Mark Wrightson who fittingly started his speech in French. Pierre, now 84 was next up, and spoke warmly and enthusiastically about the museum and the North East.  Adrian Jenkins, Director of the Museum emphasised the dedication and vision of the staff who had worked tirelessly to create a world class exhibition. Then the big moment came to go and see the clothes.
We were whisked through to Room 1 of main gallery where the scene was set – haunting drapes adorned with design sketches and quotes from the man himself, and a giant video screen of iconic catwalk shows. The exhibition consists of five specific themes, beginning with Haute Couture, Masculin-Feminin, Transparence, Art and finally the decadent Spectaculaire, all are represented in both rooms –  2 (to the left) and 3 (to the right). Cleverly, room 2 sees the five themes combined with the permanent collection of the Museum.  You get a taste of each theme – with a Broken Mirror evening ensemble representing Haute Couture, his first trouser suit embodying his obsession with the Masculin-Feminin, and a short evening dress from 1970 (chosen as the main exhibition image), the back consisting of the most exquisite black Chantilly lace. The Art outfit is the homage to Pablo Picasso Evening Ensemble, all harlequin diamond patchwork and a point d’esprit blouse tied with a classic bow at the waist. Spectaculaire sees a stunning golden silk wedding gown (a homage to Shakespeare) from 1980. The headdress with the stars is divine.

It was amazing to discover the creative talents of Monsieur Saint Laurent as a child, cutting out figures from his mother’s fashion magazines and creating his own outfits for them.
The Alchemy of Style section is situated directly opposite and houses some real treasures. It also shows the design process which started with YSL sketching, which was sent to the ateliers to make a toile (a muslin version of the design) which gave him the 3D vision for the design. Then the fabrics and adornments (examples of which are also on display) were chosen before the designs were realised. I instantly fell in love with the 2001 “pineapple” evening gown, white silk embroidered with black sequins and rhinestones with a scalloped edge. The embroidered evening jackets were sequinned works of art, especially the homage to Van Gogh. 

Then room 3, truly the highlight of the exhibition. All five themes are represented more in more detail. The information screens are truly innovative, and combine new technology with the collection which makes sense as most of the outfits still look ahead of their time. As you walk in to your left is Haute Couture, with the highlights being the Evening Ensemble (Homage to Louis Aragon) – with fabulous blue sequinned eyes peeping out of a velvet jacket adorned with the words Les Yeux d’Elsa (Elsa’s Eyes), black sleeves and silver ruffle cuffs. Breathtaking. The famous shocking pink 1958 ‘Zephirine’ dress is also here, made by Saint Laurent whilst at Dior.  Walking towards the back of the room to the Masculin-Feminin section confirms that his use of menswear to empower women is legendary. His first Tuxedo is here from 1966 and the infamous safari jacket outfit which is so farm ahead of its time. Opposite is Transparence, focussing on sheer fabrics and draping with examples of stunning evening wear that looks so contemporary. I especially was drawn to the Evening Gown from the S/S 1999 Haute Couture collection, featuring lace and sheer fabrics and a side bow. The Art section contains some of the most well known dresses in fashion history, with the instantly recognisable Mondrian dress, and also homages to Matisse and Georges Braques (which is ahead of the curve even now). The dove adorned gown with embroidery by Lease is another high point. 

Finally Spectaculaire sees pieces from the Ballets Russes collection and theatre costumes, drawing on influences from distant countries. The pink cape covered in gold stars is sublime. Overall, the curation is first rate and on a par with anything I’ve seen nationally and internationally.

Guests were treated to a fantastic Grand Buffet provided by Rockcliffe Hall’s Executive Chef Richard Allen, which included French themed delights such as a Whitby Crab Croquette, a mean Rillette of Pork and a Croque Madame.  Sweet treats included a Summer Pimms Jelly, Elderflower Panna Cotta and a pretty much near perfect Macaroon. The selection of North East cheeses went down very well with a glass of red. International DJs Hot Chip (on their way to a festival further north) provided the ambient tunes.  I managed to remember to check out the gift shop just before I left, which was dangerous due to the beautiful saison themed scarves, jewellery and books available. The exhibition  catalogue is truly unique, unusually bound and featuring exquisite detail.  

Verdict? A truly memorable evening which will go down in North East fashion folklore. 
The exhibition runs from 11th July to 25th October 2015.

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