Claude Lalanne Yves Saint Laurent haute couture Centre Pompidou
20th Century Design

Claude Lalanne & Yves Saint Laurent: Anatomy Of An Encounter

By Laurence Benaïm
As Sotheby's prepares for the landmark two-day sale, L’Univers Lalanne: Collection Claude & François-Xavier Lalanne , French journalist and writerLaurence Benaïm remembers the enduring friendship of Claude Lalanne and Yves Saint Laurent.

“W hat touches me about her is that she is able to combine the same exacting standards of craftsmanship and poetry. Her beautiful sculptor’s hands seem to push back the mists of mystery to reach the shores of art,” said Yves Saint Laurent of Claude Lalanne.

At the Dior atelier, where he was still only a young dress designer, he met Claude’s companion, François-Xavier Lalanne, who had been asked by decorator Francois Daigre to create a large Chinese dragon out of stovepipe in the couturier’s boutique at 30 avenue Montaigne. “If we were to be compared to musicians, my wife would be the improviser and I would be the one who penned the complete score before playing it,” said François-Xavier Lalanne.

Yves Saint Laurent in Ury, at the home of Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne © Archives Lalanne LITRAN Manuel

Their artistic experimentation was much admired by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, and the couple was among many important names that commissioned works from them, ordering the famous Autruche sculpture bar for their living room on the Place Vauban (as Georges Pompidou did for L’Elysée) and, of course, several of their celebrated sheep.

For Saint Laurent, the presence of Claude Lalanne – who created eighteen naturalistic, copper-framed mirrors for the designer – was an invitation to immerse himself in a world which had been familiar since his teens: that of Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast). Claude Lalanne expressed the weirdly wonderful with fairy-like deftness: it was she who magically invented apples with mouths, cabbages with legs and snail-fingers.

Claude Lalanne and Yves Saint-Laurent in Ury in 1969. Photo by Jean-Philippe Lalanne

The couple feared only boredom. “It is miraculous to take a tree leaf, dip it in a solution and end up with metal,” Claude explained. Despite their almost eleven-year age difference, they found common ground in a similar sense of poetry and imagination.

Lalanne and Yves Saint Laurent went on to collaborate on the Autumn/Winter 1969 haute couture collection for which the artist made body casts of fashion model Verushka that were used on two dresses, one in Mediterranean blue, the other in black. Verushka's figure, which had appeared as a stately woman in a safari jacket, photographed in the bush by Franco Rubartelli (Vogue 1968), was transformed into a sylph of petrified sun and ink.

Claude Lalanne Yves Saint Laurent haute couture Centre Pompidou
Yves Saint-Laurent evening gowns with sculpted elements by Claude Lalanne. Autumn/Winter 1969 haute couture collection, shown at Centre Pompidou, Paris, 22 January 2002. © Yves Saint-Laurent, all rights reserved.

Saint Laurent visited the Lalanne's workshop on an old farm in Ury, and it was here he observed the creative process behind many of Claude's iconic designs, and watched the objects for his catwalk show taking place. Was the inspiration for these pieces the Caroline Enceinte body, moulded by Claude Lalanne a few months earlier? Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse? Or perhaps Lee Miller’s living statue created by Jean Cocteau for Le Sang d’un Poète (The Blood of a Poet)?

The bust and hips are fully wrapped in a galvanic copper sculpture. “To gaze at this gold-sheathed skin is to approach the impossible border between interior and exterior, hot and cold, distance and nearness”.

At the home of Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, in 1969 © Archives Lalanne

The gold carapace contrasts with the diaphanous chiffon in a kind of couturier’s dream of Icarus: the flight of beauty, a heavenly imprint, a divine tattoo on a flesh-and-blood Eve. Through electrolysis and a liquid mixture of sulfuric acid and copper sulphate, the anatomy took shape. In “this erotic year”, as Jane Birkin sang about 1969, Claude Lalanne continued to craft jewelry for Yves Saint Laurent. Through this unobtrusive friendship, art and fashion celebrated a union of light and lightness, the glorious glow of genius that dazzles us to this day.

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