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Yves Saint Laurent movie: a costume designer’s biggest challenge

From Karl Lagerfeld in his Studio 54 disco days to the genesis of “le smoking”, the Yves Saint Laurent film is bursting at the seams with key moments from fashion history. But spare a thought for the woman who had to ensure that every single piece of the clothing in the film was suitably iconic: costume designer Madeline Fontaine.

Still from the Yves Saint Laurent film
A scene from the film featuring Karl Lagerfeld (Nikolai Kinski), third from left, and Niney as Saint Laurent, third from right

Most of the pieces in the film were originals – including the famous “le smoking” tuxedo jackets and the Mondrian dress – on loan from the Yves Saint Laurent Foundation. Other original pieces came from Saint Laurent’s time at Dior, while more still were created to fit the lead actors. “It was like there were two productions taking place at the same time,” says Fontaine: “The first was the production of the costumes, as you would for any other film; the second was working on the costumes from the YSL collection.”

Still from the Yves Saint Laurent film
Saint Laurent’s models and muses, including Betty Catroux (Marie de Villepin) wearing ‘le smoking’

For Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s former partner, who runs the YSL Foundation, “defending the image of the house of Yves Saint Laurent was the most important thing”, says Fontaine. The same was true of Dior. So, for the many fashion-show scenes, “he really did not want us to recreate any costumes. Of course, we could not make any alterations to the original pieces either, so we had to cast the models for the fashion show scenes in a very unusual way, by finding models that would fit the dresses. Afterwards, we had to build shoes that fitted them.”

A still from the Yves Saint Laurent film
Saint Laurent fitting a model

The atmosphere during fittings was suitably reverential: “We were all wearing white gloves when we touched the pieces, when we were dressing the models. It was like a museum!”

Still from the Yves Saint Laurent film
Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne)

Still, in the end, the production team had to recreate some of the looks. “Some of the key pieces were missing,” says Fontaine. “The Dior wedding dress [Saint Laurent muse] Victoire Doutreleau wore on the cover of Paris Match in 1958, for example, wasn’t there, so we found one in a flea market and recreated it. We just did it ­– we had to, to finish the film; we were running out of time. In the end, Dior were happy –­ they have the dress now.”

A still from the Yves Saint Laurent film
The Dior wedding dress, recreated by Fontaine

As for the costumes created from scratch, Fontaine took a lot of inspiration from the pictures in Alicia Drake’s book The Beautiful Fall, about the competitive relationship between Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld. “At the time, Karl Lagerfeld and his coterie considered themselves fashion idols – they were proud of themselves; they were playing with elegance, showing off, wearing velvet, broaches, jewellery, glasses. Lagerfeld always wore something special, a detail, to show that he was different. I don’t think he has changed, although when he was younger he was much more experimental.”

Still from the Yves Saint Laurent film
Kinski as Lagerfeld

The results are suitably decadent – particularly this scene, in which another of Saint Laurent’s muses, Betty Catroux, models “le smoking” in what looks like a sharp-suited, polysexual 1970s orgy, before Saint Laurent’s iconic nude portrait is recreated. Watch it and you’ll agree: it was worth the faff.

• Yves Saint Laurent will be in cinemas on 21 March in the UK and 25 June in the US.

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