By Rod Bastanmehr
Arts Reporter

The city of San Francisco and famed French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent first met in the late 1960s.

As the Bay Area became a hotbed for revolution, Laurent paved his road toward what would eventually become one of fashion’s most important dynasties.

Now, six months after Laurent’s untimely passing, San Francisco’s de Young museum is displaying over 120 of the designer’s most influential works in a retrospective show.

The works span the fashion legend’s nearly 50-year career, from his early days working at Christian Dior to his final 2002 collection.

Myra Hohberg, a history of fashion teacher at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), believes that not even a show as cohesive as this one says enough about someone she calls “the grandfather of fashion.”

“[Yves Saint Laurent] understood fashion in a way that made him an icon,” Hohberg said. “But, most importantly, he understood women in a way no one else has yet been able to emulate.”

Indeed, Laurent’s ability to seamlessly understand the shape of a woman has been the cause for much of the praise afforded him. And deservedly so, as Laurent has come to be regarded as not just a pioneer in female fashion but as a fashion-forward designer who refused to see gender as a form of couture restraint.

“Laurent was a fashion revolutionary,” said Booth Moore, fashion critic for the Los Angeles Times. “[He challenged] gender roles by creating the first tuxedo for women — dubbed ‘Le Smoking’ — in 1966 and introduced us to the multicultural kimonos, Indian tunics and African prints that we take for granted as staples of a modern wardrobe.”

Laurent’s mark can be found on the pulse of most of today’s most popular fashions, and the de Young retrospective seeks to remind viewers that Laurent’s fashion-forward spirit lives on despite his absence.

The exhibit is structured around four themes. “Masterful Pencil Strokes” focuses on Laurent’s impeccable work with silhouettes and outfit depth. “The YSL Revolution” features many of Laurent’s most famous pieces and copied pieces. “The Palette” demonstrates Laurent’s daring and unprecedented use of color. “Lyrical Sources” features Laurent’s art-influenced works, inspired by everything from Picasso to pop art.

One of the primary aims of the exhibition is to point out the revolutionary nature of his body of work. He presented to the fashion world a new definition of femininity in a signature way that transcended the norms of fashion design.

“You’re looking at one of the last great fashion revolutionaries,” Hohberg said. “This is the culmination of more than Laurent’s [work] — this is the shift in fashion. We see the effects of it to this day. There simply may never be another Yves Saint Laurent.”

True to Hohberg’s assertion, Laurent’s influence extends into a very modern, everyday context. It can be seen in the androgynous nature of hipster fashion, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits,” and Gov. Sarah Palin’s “sexy secretary” look. With these modern interpretations of fashions defined and popularized by Laurent, we see the power he had on the fashion world by daring to see clothing as devoid of simplistic gender definitions.

“I think it’s hard to ever compare Laurent to any other designer,” said third-year Caitlyn Roth, who has a major in art and minor in theatre arts. “I think designers like Laurent simply put into perspective the big shoes that we have to fill.”

Roth sees this retrospective exhibit as both a moment of brilliant admiration for a fashion pioneer, as well as a huge step forward toward recognizing fashion as a valid sector of the art world.

“You often forget to include fashion in the arts, but with someone like Laurent, you see just how present it is,” Roth said, referring to Laurent’s iconic use of famous works of art as inspiration for couture designs.

“Fashion is art,” she said. “Laurent is an artist. I commend [the de Young] for choosing to honor a different kind of artist. We may not see anything like him anytime soon.”

“Yves Saint Laurent: A Retrospective” shows

at the de Young in San Francisco from Nov. 1

through April 2009. For more information,