Artwork in museums is usually meant to be seen and not touched, not tasted and not smelled. But the Denver Art Museum is partnering with local perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz to organize an event that turns that notion on its head. On May 1, Hurwitz will lead a tour through Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective, an exhibit of 200 garments that reviews 40 years of the famous design house, with six perfumes she created for the occasion. Her perfumes play with the historic scents of the 20th century, converse with Saint Laurent’s work, and help bring the women who wore these clothes to life.
“When you experience multiple senses at the same time or you stimulate them, it’s sort of exponential,” Hurwitz says. “It’s not one plus one equals two, it’s, ‘Wow, that’s a five for me, I experience that in a whole new way, I imagine a woman wearing that dress, I can almost see her because I can smell her.’” The program will blend history with fashion in an effort to give context to all that clothing.
“To look at these beautifully constructed, incredible fabrics and look at these wonderful garments and imagining who’s wearing it and where they might wear it and then when you add what they might smell like, it’s one step closer to being able to touch it,” Hurwitz says, “even if you can’t.”
Saint Laurent launched into the Paris haute couture scene at the age of 21, inheriting Christian Dior’s design house after his death at age 58. From his first collection for the Dior house, released in 1958, Saint Laurent challenged the rules of fashion and the relationship haute couture had with everyday life. In his first line, he shucked the corseted waistlines, creating “La Trapeze,” a white, silver-sequined dress that hangs freely from the shoulders.
“It’s so important because it liberates the body of the woman,” says Florence Müller, chief curator of the retrospective. That idea of mobility foreshadowed the women’s liberation movement.
Hurwitz starts her tour there, with the light and airy “Ligne Trapeze,” a cooloris-based (root of the iris plant) aldehydic with violet undertones. That kind of scent would have been popular from the ’40s to the mid-’50s, says Hurwitz, who’s an amateur perfume historian and has the beginnings of a perfume museum in the back of her studio. Aldehydics are “very 20th-century molecules,” she says, and were the signature of Chanel No. 5.
“This is sort of like bridging the French aesthetic of Dior and starting to introduce a new quality to it, a more youthful quality that would represent YSL himself,” Hurwitz says. “It’s going to be fun to do this pairing to also explain to all the people who come to the event not only the background aesthetic of perfume at the time and place, but also specifically how it relates to YSL, and where he is in his career, and the collection and even imagining wearing this perfume with those fashions.”
Saint Laurent took his inspiration from everywhere — including the street, to the abhorrence of some of the loyal Dior patrons. He incorporated black leather when black leather was for people on the street who resembled characters in Grease, and the Dior clientele was far more Audrey Hepburn.
“It was very strange at Dior to see inspiration taken from the street,” Müller says. “Haute couture was a dictatorship. Yves Saint Laurent made proposals and let women make a choice and infuse their own personality.”
Hurwitz created “Beat Look,” a scent for the new wave French aesthetic in the ’60s, one of the only times American culture had an impact on French culture. The perfume is still an aldehydic, but with some green scents, an American influence.
Saint Laurent opened his own house in 1962, immediately charging into a line of clothing that, by embracing the gender revolution underway through the ’60s, changed the female wardrobe and, with it, the feminine identity.
He acquired clients who came for what he had to offer: fashions that were daring and brave and that embraced the feminist movement. That list included actress Lauren Bacall, fellow fashion designer Diane Vreeland, Princess Grace of Monaco, French actress Catherine Deneuve, and fashion icon Betty Catroux, who was his longtime muse.
He rarely traveled, but designed clothing that riffed off the cultural attire of countries as diverse as Morocco, India and Japan. Although those designs are impossibly unwearable, boasting towering headpieces and beadwork brassiere tops, Saint Laurent wasn’t so often inaccessible. He was among the first to produce a ready-to-wear line of clothing to get his designs into the wardrobes of everyday women and back out onto the streets. At
times, like in a 1971 line that borrowed from World War II-era fashions and pushed back against the hippie fashions with red lipstick and high heels, those fashions were more embraced on the street among younger generations than they were among the fashion elite and the press. But it was like Saint Laurent to be a little political.
The exhibition focuses on isolating moments and themes or subjects that defined a set of clothing — the women who wore them, the feminist movement, those exotic destinations, his scandalizing use of sheer fabrics (accompanied by an array of photos from a shoot of Saint Laurent himself, nude, which were used to advertise one of his perfumes, “Pour Homme”). The grand finale of the exhibit displays 40 tuxedos in four rows stacked floor-to-ceiling facing a set of stairs like a grand entrance to an opera house displaying 40 years of gowns with chandeliers bedecking the ceilings. But this is no display of handsome princes awaiting the arrival of their princesses. Both the tuxedos and the gowns were designed for women to wear.
At the time he was producing these tuxedos, a woman in pants was considered so inappropriate that when New York City socialite Nan Kempner, wore one of his pantsuits to La Cote Basque, a top-tier Manhattan restaurant, she was told she couldn’t be seated wearing slacks. She returned to her car, removed the pants, walked back in wearing only the tunic top — what might have been the world’s first mini-dress — and was given a table.
“The tuxedo was a huge revolution — this idea of going to a party dressed like a man,” Müller says.
For one of Hurwitz’s perfumes, “Le Smoking,” which takes its name from the French word for tuxedo, the notes are of tobacco, a scent used until the ’60s only in men’s scents.
“We’re definitely doing a little gender-bending for materials,” she says.
The perfumes Hurwitz created for this exhibit take cues from history and even from the fabric in use — often silks and taffetas. But for one, she went so far as to recreate an otherwise unavailable perfume: the original Yves Saint Laurent “Opium” released in 1977. Using the guidance of a historic text listing the top, middle and base notes and her welltrained nose, which has previous experience with the original perfume, she was able to come very close to what the perfume, which has since been reformulated, would have smelled like at its launch.
“I find this really exciting to be able to present to people with what it really smelled like,” Hurwitz says. Among those who know anything about perfume, Opium was right up there with Chanel No. 5 in fame. And like the original Opium, Hurwitz’s “Euphorisme d’Opium” is a big personality scent.
“I don’t think if you’re a shrinking violet you could ever pull off Yves Saint Laurent ‘Opium.’ Never,” Hurwitz says. The scent shows traces of Marrakesh and India in incense, spices, jasmine and orange. The outfits were of the same oriental influences, with red and gold damask, burgundy chiffon and rich colors in elegant silk pantsuits with a sense of opulence.
She took on designing these perfumes with the mindset of designing for Yves Saint Laurent himself, she says.
“The sense of inspiration and collaboration is very palpable for me, and I want to take it that seriously,” she says. “I felt like this was the chance of a lifetime, not just ‘Oh, that could be kind of fun.’” “Fashion is not an art,” says Pierre Bergé, who oversees the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, which manages the conservation of 5,000 garments, 15,000 accessories and 150,000 sketches by Saint Laurent and their appearances in exhibitions. “Fashion is not an art, but it needs an artist to exist. … All these dresses were created by a man who was a great artist inspired by other great artists.”
Saint Laurent went so far as to mimic paintings by famous artists — Piet Mondrian, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse — in one of his lines of dresses. There’s a YSL design with Vincent Van Gogh’s “Irises” embroidered on the fabric.
He also once created a dress to match a perfume: The “Paris rose,” a long, black evening dress with a large pink bow, was created as part of the “Paris” collection to go with the “Paris” perfume, launched in 1983. For that big, bountiful dress, Hurwitz created a heady rose and violet blend, “La Vie en Rose.”
“He’s doing what I’m doing, which is taking some artform that’s already been created and being inspired by it and coming up with something new in a different artform,” Hurwitz says. “Just doing this is pretty amazing. It’s the closest I’m ever going to get to designing for Yves Saint Laurent, which is, for any designer, a dream come true. ... This is what we would collaborate to create.”
The Yves Saint Laurent retrospective is on view until July 8. Hurwitz’s perfumes are on sale at the museum shop.