03/23/2012 12:49 EDT | Updated 05/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at Denver Art Museum spans 40 years of designer's career

DENVER - Paris. New York. Denver?

The Colorado city is not what most people think about when it comes to high fashion. But on Sunday, the Denver Art Museum hosts the only U.S. showing of "Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective," a sweeping look at 40 years of design from the late, influential French designer best known for his tuxedo suit for women, Le Smoking.

Why Denver? Museum director Christoph Heinrich was the first to ask for it after seeing the exhibit, which originated in Paris in 2010.

"The fabulous thing about this country is you have major events everywhere, all over the country," said Heinrich, who is from Germany. "It's not only everything happening in New York and Los Angeles."

And what would Saint Laurent, who died in 2008 at age 71 (and never visited Denver), think?

"He would be astonished," said Dominique Deroche, who worked closely with Saint Laurent as his publicist from 1966, when he opened his Paris boutique, to his retirement in 2002. "But he would be very proud."

The retrospective consists of 200 mannequins dressed in mostly haute couture ensembles spanning Saint Laurent's career. The ensembles were picked from an archive of 5,000 complete outfits conserved by the Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent, the muscle behind the exhibit.

Curator Florence Muller spoke passionately of Saint Laurent's ability to weave his signature gender-bending styles fluidly.

Muller said Saint Laurent didn't want to dictate what women wore. His vision was to offer many options — and most importantly, he wanted to be able to dress every woman equally, she said.

Saint Laurent's final fashion show in 2002 in Paris plays on a big screen at the entrance to the exhibit. Just inside are six chiffon dresses from that collection. Then, Irving Penn's famous portrait of Saint Laurent, with one eye peeking out from his hand over his face, welcomes viewers to the galleries.

The clothes begin with a set of four trapeze dresses, symbolic of Saint Laurent's first collection as head designer for Christian Dior in 1958, the year after Dior died.

Saint Laurent's use of transparent materials are represented by two black dresses, one long and completely see-through and the other short with an open lace back, in the centre of a gallery that features his most controversial collection, from 1971. That collection was touted, according to a replica newspaper in the gallery, as the "ugliest show in town" for its use of a retro 1940s style. Saint Laurent sought to reflect France's troublesome years during World War II with designs like a green fox fur jacket and turbans.

Also on display is Saint Laurent's Caban coat, which introduced to women the navy-style wool coat popularly known as a peacoat, Muller said. A similar style sits on a mannequin, shorter and paired with a dark dress.

One gallery shows how the designer was influenced by his favourite artists, with a heavily embroidered jacket inspired by Vincent Van Gogh and a dress inspired by Pablo Picasso. "The Imaginary Journey" gallery features Saint Laurent's vision for fashion around the world — though he wasn't much of a traveller, Muller said. Its collection includes a Spanish bolero, jackets inspired by China and colourfully beaded Moroccan outfits from a ready-to-wear line.

A wall displays 40 incarnations of Le Smoking, perhaps Saint Laurent's best known design. It debuted in 1966. Opposite this wall are dozens of gowns in gold satin, black sequin and white tulle arrayed along a red-carpeted staircase. The final dress is an haute-couture black velvet ball gown with a "Paris rose" pink silk bow and sheath skirt from 1983.

The show "has not only to do with beauty; it really has to do with the history of the last 50 years," said Heinrich, citing Saint Laurent designs like the trapeze dress, which are familiar classics, whether they carry a YSL label or not. Heinrich's own safari jacket, he added, isn't YSL, but the design comes from Saint Laurent's "creative mind."

The exhibit also includes artifacts from Saint Laurent's life. They include a replica of his work studio, a sampling of clothes owned by friend and French actress Catherine Deneuve, designs made for other famous friends and an Andy Warhol painting of the designer borrowed from the Berge foundation.

High fashion has proven to be a big draw for museums. The Metropolitan Museum in New York ranked last year's Alexander McQueen show among its top 10 most popular exhibits ever, with more than 600,000 visitors, and the YSL show in Paris was seen by more than 300,000 people.


If You Go...

YVES SAINT LAURENT: THE RETROSPECTIVE: March 25-July 8 at Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, Denver; or 720-865-5000. Museum hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and until 8 p.m. on Fridays. Timed tickets are required for the Yves Saint Laurent show; adults, $22, children 6-17, $14, seniors and college students, $18.