Accéder au contenu principal
Chronicles

Betty Catroux, Feminine singular

Betty Catroux, Feminine singular

Yves Saint Laurent met Betty Catroux in 1967. There was an immediate physical attraction. Like him, she was blonde, tall and thin. Her androgynous presence was the embodiment of the couturier’s physical ideal. From the moment they met, he would never part from the woman he considered to be his "feminine double."

On the occasion of the exhibition Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent: Feminine Singular, curated by Anthony Vaccarello, Artistic Director of Saint Laurent, we look back on the story of this fashion icon.

Chapter 1

Betty Saint

Betty Catroux, 1970s, © Droits réservés
Betty Catroux, 1970s
© Droits réservés

Betty was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1945. The only child of Carmen Saint, she arrived in Paris at the age of four and grew up in an affluent environment in the 1950s.

Through her mother’s friend Maggie van Zuylen, the mother of Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, she met Coco Chanel when she was 16 and ended up modeling for her for two years. She ultimately stopped because she found the job truly humiliating: “Chanel only took on girls who had personality. And they were all beauties: Paule Rizzo, Marie-Hélène Arnaud, they were ravishing girls. Men went crazy; they waited for us in the street outside the door on the Rue Cambon. That was a time when women were fascinating. Now, they’re all ravishing, but they all look the same.”

On December 26, 1967, she married the decorator François Catroux in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Betty has described him as “an immensely talented man with a heart of gold!”

Betty and François Catroux at their wedding, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, December 26, 1967., © Droits réservés
Betty and François Catroux at their wedding, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, December 26, 1967.
© Droits réservés
I’m not like anyone else, either mentally or physically. I have a different attitude. I am completely spontaneous. I’ve always been a free spirit. I have to say that I have never worked. I’ve always had this freedom to act, to think.
Betty Catroux

That sense of freedom is perhaps also expressed in her unique passion for dance. Every day she spends two hours practicing, as she has done for many years.

Audio
Betty discusses her passion for dance

Audio
Betty discusses her passion for dance

Chapter 2

“It Was Love at First Sight”

Yves Saint Laurent and Betty Catroux, Paris, 1970s, © Droits réservés
Yves Saint Laurent and Betty Catroux, Paris, 1970s
© Droits réservés

Betty Catroux first met Yves Saint Laurent at Chez Régine, a nightclub on the Boulevard Montparnasse. She recalls, “It was love at first sight for him, and he flirted with me… Since he was shy, he sent a young man from his table to talk to me. I sat down with Yves, and he gave me the usual compliments… I thought he was incredibly nice, and funny, too. It’s true that we resembled each other a bit. He asked me to model for him. I laughed at him, even though all the girls were dreaming of doing just that. He took my number and never let me go.”

For Yves it was love at first sight, physically. I was androgynous, asexual. It definitely made an impression on him, but our resemblance was more than physical; we were alike spiritually, mentally, it was something incredible. And what was amazing about him is that he felt that I could be his soul mate, a kindred spirit.
Betty Catroux

They would end up becoming inseparable. Betty is his double, his twin and his constant companion. She accompanied Yves on all his travels, including on private trips and during his vacations in Marrakech. “For the House of Saint Laurent, we went everywhere: to Japan, China, America.” However, she never worked for him. Their relationship was priceless, “like a fantasy that lasted a lifetime.”

Yves wrote her letters that reveal his profound attachment to her. They nicknamed each other “Pulu”, a name of endearment derived from a comic strip he had created entitled “La Vilaine Lulu.”

Card from Yves Saint Laurent to Betty Catroux, © Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent
Card from Yves Saint Laurent to Betty Catroux
© Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent

Audio
Invited on the radio, Betty reads a letter that Yves Saint Laurent sent her.

Audio
Invited on the radio, Betty reads a letter that Yves Saint Laurent sent her.

Chapter 3

Living to Have Fun

Yves Saint Laurent and Betty Catroux went out together every night. They were regulars at Parisian nightclubs and had only one goal: have as much fun as possible.

We lived for seduction. Seduction was our goal. It gave us immense pleasure to charm and seduce. It was really all about partying, every night. Just having fun.
Betty Catroux
Loulou de La Falaise, Yves Saint Laurent and Betty Catroux at the couturier’s home, 55 rue de Babylone, Paris, 1978. Photograph by Guy Marineau, © Guy Marineau
Loulou de La Falaise, Yves Saint Laurent and Betty Catroux at the couturier’s home, 55 rue de Babylone, Paris, 1978. Photograph by Guy Marineau
© Guy Marineau

Also part of their intimate circle was Loulou de La Falaise, with whom they formed a trio. Unlike Betty, Loulou was more “womanly.” Radiant and fascinating, she saw the world through rose-colored glasses, while Betty and Yves were pessimists at heart. “To me, Loulou conjured up fantasy and Betty a bodily rigor,” said Yves, who saw aspects of his feminine ideal in each of them.

François and Betty Catroux, Pierre Bergé, Bill Willis and Yves Saint Laurent, Paris, 1970s. Photograph by Jeanik Ducot.
François and Betty Catroux, Pierre Bergé, Bill Willis and Yves Saint Laurent, Paris, 1970s. Photograph by Jeanik Ducot.

Betty liked Le Sept on the Rue Sainte-Anne, a nightclub that doubled as a restaurant. There they mixed with the likes of Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andy Warhol, a friend of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. Together the pair cultivated their “taste for all things louche” and all that the night had to offer. “All that excess and drugs were very important in our lives,” she recalls, “but we did it very badly, experienced it very badly. [...] That’s why we ended up in the hospital, often together, and in horrendous condition. It was a miracle we survived, with the help of people who loved us.  [...] Pierre Bergé and François, my husband, come to mind: They were always there for us. They supported, protected and helped us. Otherwise, we certainly wouldn’t be here anymore. They were devastated by what they saw, but they never gave up on us.”

Chapter 4

The Saint Laurent Style

By the time he met Betty Catroux in 1967, Yves Saint Laurent had already developed his own style, which drew on menswear in order to revolutionize women’s fashion. Throughout his career, the couturier continually reinterpreted the peacoat, the trench coat, the tuxedo, the safari jacket and the jumpsuit: leitmotifs which he would revisit in his collections when it suited him. In the past, these garments were only found in a utilitarian male wardrobe. Saint Laurent appropriated them and adapted them for the female body, retaining the cut, comfort, and practical aspects of these pieces, while adjusting them for a feminine silhouette in a way that combined simplicity and elegance.

A woman wearing a suit is anything but masculine. A strict, clean cut accentuates her femininity, her seductiveness, her ambiguity. She identifies with the body of a teenager; in other words, she asserts the major upheaval in social mores that has inescapably led to uniformity and equality between the sexes. This androgynous woman, on an equal footing with men through her clothes, upends the outdated image of classical femininity: she deploys all her secret weapons to prevail over what would appear to be a handicap but is, in reality, nothing more than the mysterious and seductive image of modern womanhood.
Yves Saint Laurent

Extract from the television show Dim Dam Dom, March 1968 © INA

Chapter 5

The Spirit of the Times

Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent, and Loulou de La Falaise at the inauguration of the first SAINT LAURENT rive gauche boutique in London, New Bond Street, London, September 10, 1969., © Bridgeman Images
Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent, and Loulou de La Falaise at the inauguration of the first SAINT LAURENT rive gauche boutique in London, New Bond Street, London, September 10, 1969.
© Bridgeman Images

Before meeting Yves Saint Laurent, Betty Catroux already cultivated a love of men’s clothing. She felt most in sync with herself when wearing them.

Androgynous, angular, and dressed like a tomboy in clothing that provided comfort and confidence, Betty has always exuded her own form of sensuality. When they met, Yves saw in her “the spirit of the times,” in which fashion was “a state of mind before being about clothes.” Wearing clothing was not enough: a woman had to convey an attitude at once mysterious and seductive.

I’ve always been captivated by masculine things. I’ve always worn jeans, men’s jackets, even if I’d find them at Monoprix in those early years. I only wear menswear. I don’t feel like either a man or a woman, but I feel more seductive when I’m dressed in a masculine way.
Betty Catroux

Betty is the woman who best embodies the signature Saint Laurent style, wearing the couturier’s jumpsuits, pantsuits, and safari jackets better than anyone else. The perfect example is the safari jacket she wore for the inauguration of the SAINT LAURENT rive gauche boutique in London in 1969.

Betty ended up fully appropriating the Saint Laurent style. The designer encouraged women to dress by constructing an outfit around the “perfect kinds of clothes” that he designed, and to spontaneously mix and match items. Betty says, “I’m always mixing things, but only Saint Laurent! I like for the result to not look too thought out in advance.”

Extract from an interview between Betty Catroux and Anthony Vaccarello, Artistic Director of Saint Laurent, directed by Loïc Prigent for the exhibition "Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent - Feminine Singular"

English subtitles are available through the settings menu in the player

Chapter 6

The Tuxedo

In smoking rooms of the 1880s, men began wearing tuxedos: smoking jackets with broad silk satin lapels, from which the ashes from their cigars could slide without leaving any marks. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent offered women his take on this traditional masculine garment – called un smoking in French – as an alternative to the evening gown, overturning long-established codes relating to power and fashion. Yves Saint Laurent’s “smoking” proved to be a true success, not only in the world of haute couture, but in its ready-to-wear version launched a few months later. 

“Le smoking” became a must for emancipated women who, like men, assumed the right to wear it, thus upending the codes and conventions surrounding seduction. Saint Laurent made “le smoking” a key element of a contemporary woman’s wardrobe. He reinterpreted it every season and made it a leitmotif throughout his career.

Since 1966, when the first “smoking” appeared in my collection, the idea of a woman wearing a man’s suit has just kept expanding, has become more rooted, to the point of taking hold as the very symbol of the modern woman. I think that if you were to represent a day in the life of a woman of the ’70s, it would have to be a woman wearing pants.
Yves Saint Laurent
Betty Catroux wearing a SAINT LAURENT rive gauche tuxedo, 1993. Photograph by Steven Meisel, © Steven Meisel
Betty Catroux wearing a SAINT LAURENT rive gauche tuxedo, 1993. Photograph by Steven Meisel
© Steven Meisel

The tuxedo became the key item in Betty Catroux’s wardrobe. She made the garment her own, acknowledging its “perfect balance” between the feminine and the masculine look she so adores. Betty’s personal collection includes numerous tuxedos—jackets, pants, skirts, dresses, and even shorts, all echoing the variations Saint Laurent presented in each collection.

You feel like you’re wearing a second skin. In my case, I finally felt comfortable with my body; it is glorious to wear a Saint Laurent “smoking” […] I always wear it the same way: bare skin under the jacket, no shirt, no jewelry, nothing.
Betty Catroux

Chapter 7

Style Icon

Betty Catroux, a true fashion icon, has been photographed by major artists, including Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, Steven Meisel, and Jeanloup Sieff. “I always say that I don’t have any talent other than a talent for attracting talent,” she asserts.

Extract from an interview between Betty Catroux and Anthony Vaccarello, Artistic Director of Saint Laurent, directed by Loïc Prigent for the exhibition "Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent - Feminine Singular"

English subtitles are available through the settings menu in the player

Betty has often posed for magazines wearing haute couture and ready-to-wear. She has been called “[the one] who wears it to perfection” (Vogue USA) and “who embodies the style of Saint Laurent” (Vogue UK).

Chapter 8

The Saint Laurent Spirit

Yves Saint Laurent designed both haute couture and ready-to-wear. In 1999, the ready-to-wear label was sold to Kering, which now owns the brand.

Betty met Anthony Vaccarello, Artistic Director of Saint Laurent, at the inauguration of the musée YVES SAINT LAURENT marrakech in the fall of 2017.

I love Anthony’s attitude, and was very impressed by it. He has a real elegance, an incredible allure. I like him a lot, and I think he has captured so well that Saint Laurent ambience, that sense of mystery: that way of seeing women.
Betty Catroux
Betty Catroux and Anthony Vaccarello, 2020. Photograph by David Sims, © Courtesy of Saint Laurent
Betty Catroux and Anthony Vaccarello, 2020. Photograph by David Sims
© Courtesy of Saint Laurent

In 2018, Betty agreed to participate in an advertising campaign for the Saint Laurent autumn-winter 2018 collection. She was photographed by David Sims wearing a leather jacket designed for both the men’s and women’s collections.

Betty continues to embody the “Saint Laurent spirit” and its androgynous style, which is not reduced to a specific gender. “I hate nostalgia,” asserts Betty. “I never think about the past. It’s the present that interests me. I like the present, in which I feel a thousand times better than fifty years ago. I used to feel uncomfortable with myself, but today I feel completely in tune with our era.”

Betty Catroux in a 2018 Fall/Winter ad campaign for Saint Laurent, 2018. Video by David Sims © Courtesy of Saint Laurent

You think you know everything about her: her allure, that strand of bright blonde hair falling over dark glasses; that long, lean silhouette that’s slightly boyish yet very feminine at the same time … In fact she is all that and something else too: a woman who moves, thinks, laughs and embodies the spirit of Saint Laurent, just like that, without any great fanfare. Betty lives and breathes Saint Laurent. Everything that makes up the House’s aura—an allure, a mystique, an almost scandalous aspect, an elusive yet enticing brush with danger—finds its powerful expression in Betty.
Anthony Vaccarello

Chapter 9

An Exceptional Donation

Betty Catroux’s personal collection consists of 180 haute couture pieces, many of which were runway prototypes that were delivered to her a few days after a collection was shown. There are 138 additional pieces designed by Yves Saint Laurent for his SAINT LAURENT rive gauche ready-to-wear label as well as accessories, including shoes, bags and jewelry.

Extract from an interview between Betty Catroux and Anthony Vaccarello, Artistic Director of Saint Laurent, directed by Loïc Prigent for the exhibition "Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent - Feminine Singular"

English subtitles are available through the settings menu in the player

At home, I’m fortunate to have a wonderful little “museum” that my husband François Catroux, who is a decorator, had built to house my Yves Saint Laurent clothes. It includes magnificent things that I still wear today. Everything is extremely modern and perfectly proportioned. I am so lucky. I must have around twenty “smokings”, embroidered jackets, pantsuits…
Betty Catroux
Betty Catroux seated beside Countess Jacqueline de Ribes, in the audience during the 1978 Spring-Summer haute couture runway show, InterContinental Hotel, Paris, January 25, 1978, © Droits réservés
Betty Catroux seated beside Countess Jacqueline de Ribes, in the audience during the 1978 Spring-Summer haute couture runway show, InterContinental Hotel, Paris, January 25, 1978
© Droits réservés

Audio
Betty discusses the importance of runway prototypes

Audio
Betty discusses the importance of runway prototypes

In 2019, Betty Catroux decided to donate her wardrobe to the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, out of friendship for its president, Madison Cox: “Yves et Pierre gave me everything. My life is a true fairy tale! Today these garments return where they came from, in order for Yves' work to live on” she said. 

This donation, which is the largest the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent has ever received, is particularly significant because these pieces embody both the signature style that Yves Saint Laurent continually upheld and his strong bond with Betty Catroux. It also gives us the opportunity to see the full wardrobe of a fashion icon.

Chapter 10

Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent – Feminine singular

In 2020, the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris will be devoting a special exhibition to Betty Catroux. The pieces displayed in the exhibition come from a major donation Betty Catroux has made to the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent.

Madison Cox, President of the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, has given Anthony Vaccarello free rein in curating this exhibition, which will be mounted at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris. Anthony Vaccarello, Artistic Director of Saint Laurent, approaches Betty Catroux’s wardrobe from an aesthetic perspective by selecting the pieces that best reveal her unique personality and ongoing influence on the label’s signature style.

Don’t expect to find in this exhibition a definitive handbook, or How to Become the Perfect Saint Laurent Woman. With Betty, there is always that mysterious side as well, that enduring ambiguity that defies all definition. Betty incarnates that shadow, enigmatic and tense, which is at the core of every one of us, and which Saint Laurent’s fashion reveals and expresses to the fullest.
Anthony Vaccarello