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Yves Saint Laurent’s Japan

Yves Saint Laurent with a courtesan dressed in traditional clothing, Kyoto, April 1963
© Droits réservés
Yves Saint Laurent with a courtesan dressed in traditional clothing, Kyoto, April 1963
© Droits réservés

Yves Saint Laurent’s Japan

In 1962, Pierre Bergé traveled to Japan for the first time in order to prepare his visit with Yves Saint Laurent the following year. They were both passionate about this country, establishing a collection of objects and books on Japanese culture that served as a continual source of inspiration for the couturier.

Chapter 1

1963: The First Trip

In 1963, less than two months after opening the haute couture house, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé traveled to Japan to present the spring-summer collection with the help of Hiroshi Kawazoe, sales representative for the house of Yves Saint Laurent in Japan and Bergé’s personal friend. They visited Tokyo and Kyoto, where they admired the renowned cherry blossoms (sakura) alongside courtesans dressed in gleaming kimonos. The women recalled the polychrome prints in Saint Laurent’s apartment on the Place Vauban. He did not acquire any prints any while in Japan. Saint Laurent and Bergé also went to the ancient imperial capital Nara, where thousands of deer freely roamed the city’s many temples.

I sought out Japan early on and was immediately fascinated by this ancient and modern country, and ever since I have been influenced by it on many occasions.
Yves Saint Laurent, 1990

Chapter 2

Business Ties with Japan

Yves Saint Laurent was Christian Dior’s assistant between 1955 and 1957. Dior entrusted him with the creation of a collection that was to be exported and which used silky fabrics from Japan brocaded with decorative patterns in gold thread. 

Saint Laurent’s 1963 trip to Japan was an opportunity to seal a deal between the haute couture house and the Seibu department stores through their successor Kuniko Tsutsumi. She selected pieces from the haute couture collection to be made and sold in her stores. During a later trip in 1975, fashion shows were again held in the department store.

Yves Saint Laurent often borrowed ideas from Asia and I think he was particularly fond of Japan. He was certainly a person who had a special understanding of both the aesthetics and the iconography of Japanese culture.
Kenzo Takada

Chapter 3

The Collection of Japanese Objects

Beginning in the 1960s and throughout the rest of their life together, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé assembled an impressive collection of artwork. While the collection included a limited amount of Asian—and especially Japanese—objects, these pieces nonetheless displayed the high quality of the handicrafts produced in the archipelago. Saint Laurent and Bergé owned a collection of lacquered boxes and furniture (urushi), the gold powder decoration (maki-e) of which displayed considerable skill. The ceramics they acquired were primarily porcelain pieces decorated with flowers and plants, attesting to the Japanese people’s intrinsic connection to nature. Most of these works were purchased in France through antique dealers and gallery owners, while a few were commissioned in Japan, as indicated in the following letter Hiroshi Kawazoe sent Bergé from Tokyo on April 28, 1963: “Monsieur Saint Laurent’s screen is being completed. We are ensuring that the work is perfect … It will probably be sent to him sometime in July.”

Chapter 4

Inspiration Found in Books

Yves Saint Laurent had many books on Japan, its culture, and its handicrafts in his library. They allowed him to keep track of his sources of inspiration for the outfits and accessories that drew on this country.

Parallels can be drawn between the books Japanese Costume and Textile Artsand Ukiyo-e, 250 ans d’estampes japonaises and the kimonos from the autumn-winter 1994 collection. The rectangular inros reproduced in the book Japanese Lacquer, 1600-1900, Selections from the Charles A. Greenfield Collection resemble the perfume bottle for Opium, while the round inros seem to have inspired handbags designed around 1977. The writing cases shown in this book can be seen as a source for the bamboo-printed silk lamé used in a long evening ensemble from the autumn-winter 1978 collection.

Chapter 5

The Autumn-Winter 1970 Collection

A series of seven evening gowns in georgette crepe from the autumn-winter 1970 collection were inspired by Japan. Based on a simple, straight shape and with an opening on the side for some, they were made in dark colors like copper, black, navy, and blue-green. The Japanese influence was conveyed in the embroidered patterns decorating these designs. These included cherry blossoms (sakura), wisteria (fuji), plum blossoms (ume), and reeds, which recalled the Japanese foliage depicted in prints and decorative objects. Two other designs in lighter colors—a dress and a jacket-tunic in silk satin—were embroidered with butterflies and cherry blossom branches. Many of these ensembles were embellished with gold metal chokers shaped like butterflies and made by the artist Claude Lalanne.

Chapter 6

The 1975 Trip

Betty Catroux, Loulou de La Falaise, Anne-Marie Muñoz, Yves Saint Laurent, and Pierre Bergé upon arriving in Japan, Tokyo, November 1975, © Droits réservés
Betty Catroux, Loulou de La Falaise, Anne-Marie Muñoz, Yves Saint Laurent, and Pierre Bergé upon arriving in Japan, Tokyo, November 1975
© Droits réservés

Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé returned to Japan on November 6-18, 1975, to present that year’s autumn-winter collection. They were accompanied by part of the haute couture house’s studio team, including Loulou de La Falaise and Anne-Marie Muñoz, their friends Betty Catroux and Marina Schiano, as well as six models and two dressers. They divided their time between Tokyo and Kyoto, filling their days with numerous television interviews, fashion shows, dinners, and a visit to an exhibition of floral works at the Seibu Museum. Benefits from the two fashion shows they held were donated to the Japan Tuberculosis Association. 

Excerpts from reports broadcast on Japanese Television, November 1975.

Chapter 7

Le Kabuki

Autographed Kabuki magazine that Master Onoe Baiko sent to Yves Saint Laurent, March 1982.
Autographed Kabuki magazine that Master Onoe Baiko sent to Yves Saint Laurent, March 1982.

Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent usually attended Kabuki performances during their trips to Japan, as attested to in a letter from the actor Baiko Onoe found in a magazine on the art of Kabuki. In it, Onoe says he would be honored to receive Monsieur Saint Laurent in his dressing room upon his visit to the theater.

Kabuki is a traditional form of theater that began in the early Edo period (1603-1868). Initially performed exclusively by women, it was limited to men beginning in 1629, following a government decree banning women from the stage. Costumes play a key role in immediately allowing the audience to distinguish between male and female characters. The actors do not consider their costumes as mere accessories but instead view them as an integral part of each role, heavily influencing their performance. The central place of clothing is intimately connected to the very nature of a Kabuki performance. The colors, patterns, and cut of a successful costume should immediately tell the audience a character’s age, personality, and even his or her fate.

In 2012, the Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent held an exhibition devoted to Kabuki theater.

Pierre Bergé interviewed by Aurélie Samuel on the occasion of the exhibition "Kimono" at musée national des arts asiatiques - Guimet, Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent, Paris, 24 October 2016.

Chapter 8


Nature is a favorite theme in Japanese art. Irises are often depicted in prints, temple interiors, and textiles. They are notably found on the remarkable folding screens by Ogata Korin (1658-1716) and in prints by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Following the 1867 Exposition universelle, at which Japan was officially present for the first time, the Japonisme movement was born. It influenced artists like Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), whose 1889 painting Irises (held at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles) reinterpreted Hokusai’s Iris and Grasshopper series. Saint Laurent was continuing in the same vein when, for the spring-summer 1988 collection, he designed a jacket embroidered by the Maison Lesage that depicted Van Gogh’s painting and which in doing so borrowed more broadly from Japanese imagery.

Yves Saint Laurent reinterpreted the theme with brilliance and virtuosity, using different types of irises and making this piece one of the most striking in all his collection. It is undoubtedly the height of elegance to be able to wear this creation by a true master.
Kenzo Takada

Chapter 9

The 1990 Retrospective

Yves Saint Laurent returned to Japan in autumn 1990 for the opening of a retrospective exhibition devoted to his work. It was part of a series of exhibitions that began with a retrospective held at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and curated by Diana Vreeland in 1983, which was the first time a fashion exhibition dedicated to an active, living couturier was held. The exhibition subsequently traveled to other countries, including Japan, where it was displayed at the Sezon Museum of Art in Tokyo in November and December 1990. It was composed of three parts: a retrospective of designs dating between 1958-1990, an exhibition of Saint Laurent’s drawings for the theater, and a display of fashion photography.

Chapter 10

Homage to Japan: The Autumn-Winter 1994 Collection

The Autumn-Winter 1994 collection’s evening ensembles paid homage to Japan by literally referencing kimonos. The traditional interior garment became a ceremonial coat worn over a dress. Passementeries embroidered with seed beads replaced obi belts and were paired with long and short kimonos. The quilted and printed silk lamé fabrics for these garments were created by the Maison Abraham. They were similar to traditional fabrics from the Nishijin district, in which strips of gold paper are inserted in the background weave. Saint Laurent maintained the classic shape of the kimono with its loose sleeves and one flap crossed over the other.