The first major UK exhibition devoted to the design genius of Yves Saint Laurent is coming not to a London museum but to the Bowes Museum, housed in a magnificently improbable French-style chateau purpose-built as a museum in the late 19th century in the small market town of Barnard Castle in County Durham.
Style is Eternal, named from a Saint Laurent quotation – “Fashion fades; style is eternal” – is being organised with the designer’s former partner, Pierre Bergé, director of the foundation that manages his estate.
It will feature 50 outfits, many never shown outside Paris before, and will span his career, including designs influenced by art history, such as his sharply cut and patterned Mondrian dresses, and his Russian collection, inspired by the costume designs for Diaghilev’s early 20th-century Ballets Russes.
It will also have his endlessly imitated jumpsuits, trench coats, trouser suits and the dinner jackets transformed into women’s evening wear, dubbed Le Smoking, which he launched in 1966 but which still feature on almost every red carpet.
His mannish clothes for women were socially important, Bergé said: “If Chanel gave women their freedom, it was Saint Laurent who empowered them.”
He called the Bowes a natural home for the show, given its exceptional collection and exhibition record with fashion and textiles. “The museum and its location also clearly reflect Yves Saint Laurent’s and my own passion for inspiring, timeless places. It is the perfect setting for us – a museum built as a French chateau in the age of the Second Empire.”
The museum was the legacy of John and Joséphine Bowes, a couple as exotic as their creation. He was the child of the 10th Earl of Strathmore and Maria Millner, one of his estate workers, who married when the earl was on his deathbed to secure their son’s succession.
Although the will was bitterly contested by other members of the family, he became rich on the coal on his Teesdale land, and married a beautiful actor, Joséphine Coffin-Chevalier, after meeting her in a theatre he owned in Paris. Together t hey planned a museum to bring the arts of the world to the people of Durham and, although the building was completed only after their deaths, they left a collection of 15,000 objects to fill it, including paintings by El Greco, Canaletto and Goya, Sèvres porcelain and the Silver Swan, a lifesize, 18th-century automaton that is still set working every day.
Joanna Hashagen, curator of fashion at the Bowes, called the exhibition of “one of the most influential fashion designers of all time” a great moment in the museum’s history. “We are also thrilled to work, alongside the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent, on an innovative display that will introduce a dialogue between the designer’s body of work and the Bowes Museum’s collection.”
Saint Laurent’s work was often hailed as crossing the boundary between fashion and art, and was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York as early as 1983. Born in Algeria in 1936, he was chosen by another legendary designer, Christian Dior, as his successor. Dior then died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1957, leaving the 21-year-old as the head of a major fashion house. He launched his own fashion house with Bergé in 1962, and a ready-to-wear boutique in 1966. He retired in 2002 and died in 2008.
• Style is Eternal will open at the Bowes in July and run until October.