The night was young in Gay Paree, certainly for the nocturnal creatures of the demi monde who inhabited the infamous Régine, the gayest of the gay nightclubs. The year was 1967, and what happened that fateful evening across a crowded discotheque floor would mark the beginning of one of the most legendary kinships in fashion history. Through the louche haze of smoke and strobe lights, a leather-clad Yves Saint Laurent locked eyes with an impossibly languorous, leggy and platinum-tressed Betty Catroux and it was coup de foudre. Saint Laurent saw in Catroux a reflection of himself—here was his ‘twin’, his feminine alter ego.
As the feted interior decorator François Catroux (Betty Catroux’s husband) said inThe Beautiful Fall, Alicia Drake’s captivating chronicle of hedonistic 1970s fashion excess in Paris,“She was a pencil stroke that was his pencil stroke. She is what he would have dreamed of being himself, I guess.” And thus began a symbiotic relationship between fashion designer and muse which would come to span over three decades and produce tours de force such as LeSmoking, as immortalised by Helmut Newton. Woman kind has Catroux and her trademark tom boy style—sharply cut blazer plus skinny trousers, usually in black, have been her uniform of choice since the 1960s, when a woman in man’s clothing was deemed out réto say the least— to thank for inspiring Saint Laurent to use masculine tailoring tropes to revolutionise womenswear.
Geniuses of Yves Saint Laurent’s magnitude, of course, have a proclivity forgathering iconic women about them. The late Louise Vava Lucia Henriette le Bailly de la Falaise — better known as Loulou de la Falaise, daughter of the raving beauty Maxime de la Falaise, herself a muse to Elsa Schiaparelli—was Saint Laurent ’s other woman, the yin to Catroux ’s yang, and her flamboyant, accessorised-to-the-hilt, eccentrically exotic, bohemian-princess style would inspire the other strain in the manic-depressive designer’s body of work—the strain that captured the beat nikzeitgeist of the era, and which prolifically channelled Saint Laurent’s fascination with his beloved Marrakesh. Saint Laurent had first met de la Falaise in1968, and by1972, was so besotted with her, he invited her to come work alongside him designing jewellery and hats.
On her unique collaboration with Saint Laurent, she told Vogue: “We both believe fantasy is such a vital element of fashion.We tend to think of ourselves as gypsies who have just returned with a marvellous caravan of incredible finds from the exotic reaches of the earth. But we have to make the caravan ourselves. Our Orient is our imagination.” The luxe hippie- chic aesthetic came to be synonymous with beauties like Marisa Berenson, whom Saint Laurent hailed as “the girl of the ’70s”, and Talitha Getty, who is best remembered posing in a kaftan, harem pants and knee-high boots for a 1969 photograph taken by Patrick Lichfield on a Marrakesh rooftop. It’s an image so emblematic of the era that Saint Laurent has wistfully commented,“I knew the youthfulness of the ’60s: Talitha and Paul Getty lying on a starlit terrace in Marrakesh, beautiful and damned, and a whole generation assembled as if for eternity where the curtain of the past seemed to lift before an extraordinary future.” This was the late ’60s—the youth quake was rumbling underfoot, and Saint Laurent instinctively knew to dissociate himself from the stuffy ghosts of haute-couture past and embrace the future’s new generation.