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Paul Smith on Le Smoking

Paul Smith on Le Smoking

February/March 2017

My wife Pauline and I met and fell in love in 1967. She was a lecturer in fashion, and knew that it was possible to apply to see the couture shows in Paris. We’d stay in cheap hotels, eat at self-service restaurants and would queue up at the Chambre* on Faubourg St Honoré in the hope of getting tickets. They were very strict about what you wore: one had to dress “smartly”.

We saw Balmain, Balenciaga, Lanvin, Courrèges, Cardin. Chanel was in the salon above the famous mirrored staircase. All the vendeuses were there in their black dresses with their pin-cushions; we sat in gold chairs. But the key show was Yves Saint Laurent, the enfant terrible of Paris fashion. You’d see all sorts at his show; clients, socialites, pop stars – and even nuns! They would bring girls from convent schools who showed potential to work in the ateliers.

Danielle Luquet de Saint Germain modelling Le Smoking in 1968

In 1968 his show included a new version of Le Smoking**. The model*** came out, walked and casually unbuttoned her jacket. Underneath was this beautiful chiffon shirt – blouse I suppose you’d call it – that was transparent. You could see her breasts. The entire audience gasped like they were at a firework display. At the time, this was absolutely mind-blowing. I’ve got no idea what the nuns thought (though I bet they were having nun of it), but what was especially amazing is that it did not seem rude, crass or unseemly. It was very elegant. And later, when Saint Laurent spoke about it, he explained that these transparent looks were for evenings – private evenings – with your lover or your husband. They weren’t for running down to the boulangerie in!

Pauline and I have always appreciated understated reverence: and the idea of having a smoking jacket on a woman and it looking massively feminine and beautiful – in a really good cut – was very appealing. In 2002, when I heard that Saint Laurent had decided to close his couture operation, I took Pauline to Paris to have a Smoking of her own made. Very kindly they agreed to reproduce the one from the year we met. It was the very last Smoking ever made by Saint Laurent couture. And because of that, in 2005 we were invited to the dinner for the opening of an exhibition dedicated to Le Smoking. We were at a table with Loulou de la Falaise and Hedi Slimane****, who told me that as a student he’d once sneaked into one of my shows in Paris, which was very flattering. Saint Laurent was at a table with Catherine Deneuve. It was a great, great honour to be there, just as it was a huge privilege (entirely thanks to Pauline’s initiative) to see that show 37 years earlier.

Catherine Deneuve with Yves Saint-Laurent, 1968

Notes on a moment
*The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the association of Paris’s couturiers.
**A couture-made tuxedo for women. Saint Laurent wrote of it: “For a woman, Le Smoking is an indispensable garment with which she finds herself continually in fashion, because it is about style, not fashion.”
***Danielle Luquet de Saint Germain, then 23. Life magazine that March described her as “aggressively elegant”.
****Artistic director of Yves Saint Laurent, 2012-16

Later this year the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris will open at 5 Avenue Marceau, the designer’s hotel particulier. It will host exhibitions from his archive, which includes around 5,000 couture garments

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