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It’s not the ideal situation for a costume designer by any stretch of the imagination. You’ve been hired for an exciting biopic of a dead fashion designer but the estate refuses to let you use their vintage clothes and is supporting a rival biopic. This was the challenge facing Anaïs Romand, costume designer for French director Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, which premieres at the Cannes Film Festival this weekend.
The film is not to be confused with another biopic, Yves Saint Laurent, which played at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. That film, directed by Jalil Lespert, received full endorsement from Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s long-time partner, including the loan of vintage outfits from the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent’s 6,000-strong collection.
What’s more, earlier this year, Bergé apparently threatened to sue over the Bonello film if it showed unauthorised reproductions. “I am saying they are not allowed to show copies,” he was quoted as telling Women’s Wear Daily in January.
The situation meant that Romand, who worked on last year’s Cannes smash, Holy Motors, had her work cut out to portray the legendary French designer’s work. So how did she approach the task?
She was, she says, helped “immeasurably” by Olivier Châtenet, a private collector with a passion for the work of Saint Laurent. Two of the film’s characters – Betty Catroux, a model, friend and muse of Saint Laurent, and Anne Marie Muñoz, one of his closest collaborators – were entirely dressed and accessorised in original Saint Laurent Rive Gauche creations from Chatenet’s collection.
The Bonello film, which stars the French actor Gaspard Ulliel in the title role, recounts the period from 1965 to 1976, when Yves Saint Laurent created his first smoking suit and caused a scandal with his 1971 spring/summer collection, which critics accused of romanticising the Nazi occupation of France.
For much of the film, Ulliel wears an original 1970s Saint Laurent smoking. “Most of his accessories, like scarves and belts, are original Saint Laurent; the rest was made by me, inspired by richly documented sources,” says Romand.
Bergé’s legal warning was not of concern, she says, since Saint Laurent’s producer, Eric Altmayer, had agreed reproduction rights with François-Henri Pinault, chief executive of Kering, which owns the Saint Laurent brand. “Legally speaking, we needed the brand owner,” recalls Altmayer.
Romand says she was also helped by the fact that, “costume design for cinema deals with image, not plain reality. It gives freedom to take short-cuts you can’t take in haute couture.”
There were some particular challenges, though, including the designer’s spectacular 1976 Ballets Russes show, of which Vogue wrote: “The world won’t change, but it will look a little different.” Romand had to rely on public archives and photographs to recreate the show. “I had just four authentic outfits from the 1976 collection. The rest – dresses, shoes, jewels, hats, turbans, shawls – all had to be made, even the prints on the silk.”
Despite the odds, Romand strove to reflect Saint Laurent’s legacy as a designer. “He influenced all who came afterwards in setting the standard for fine clothes for all women, not only the very wealthy,” she says.
She also tried to capture what makes his clothing resonate today. “I didn’t want it to look like a period film with clothes that nobody would like to wear now. I wanted the costumes to look desirable for young people.”
‘Saint Laurent’ premieres at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday