Nobody’s ever accused me of being a fashionista. But if you are, or just like me are an aficionado of fashion history, there’s a new museum in Paris that should be on your must-do list: Musée Yves Saint Laurent. This small new addition to the Paris museum scene is the first museum in Paris devoted to the life and work of a single fashion designer, the legendary Yves Saint Laurent.
The elegant building that houses Musée Yves Saint Laurent is actually the designer’s original Paris haute couture house. Since the retirement of Yves Saint Laurent in 2002, the building has become first the headquarters of Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent and, since Fall of 2017, is now also a museum.
Getting to Musée Yves Saint Laurent
Musée Yves Saint Laurent is located at 5 avenue Marceau, conveniently close to the Alma-Marceau Metro station. Other nearby sights include the Palais Tokyo and the Paris Museum of Modern Art that occupies one of its wings. There’s also the Palais Galliera and its slate of temporary exhibitions for those who want to see more fashion. (The current exhibition, through July 15th, is a retrospective of Belgian designer Martin Margiela. Check the Palais Galliera website to see what the current exhibition is during your Paris visit.)
Right next to the Alma-Marceau Metro station is Place de l’Alma, with a fabulous view down the Seine towards the Eiffel Tower. The Place de l’Alma also home to the Flamme de la Liberté sculpture. This gold-leafed replica of the torch from the Statue of Liberty was originally built as a monument to French-American friendship. But since the tragic death of Princess Diana in a car crash in one of the tunnels underneath Place de l’Alma, the monument has become something of an unofficial Diana memorial. It seemed fitting somehow to visit that spot on my way to see Musée Yves Saint Laurent since it was Princess Diana that first introduced me to the concept of couture fashion and probably to the name Yves Saint Laurent.
Although the address is avenue Marceau, I found the museum’s discreet entrance was actually on a quiet side street that connects to avenue Marceau. The entrance was just steps from the corner with avenue Marceau, though, and the building is clearly marked (see the photo above) on the avenue Marceau side so you can’t miss it.
Need to know for visiting Musée Yves Saint Laurent:
Address: 5 avenue Marceau (16th arrondissement)
Metro: Alma-Marceau (Metro 9)
Hours: Open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 6pm. (Open Friday until 9pm). See website for holiday hours.
Admission: 10€ – Not on Paris Museum Pass.
For more information (such as holiday hours) visit the Musée Yves Saint Laurent website.
The address for the museum on avenue Marceau is technically 16th arrondissement. But avenue Marceau is the border between the 8th and 16th arrondissements. So the other side of the street is the 8th arrondissement.
A combination doorman and guard stationed at the door did a quick security check on my bag as I entered, just like every other Paris attraction I visited. As with all Paris museums, luggage and large bags are not allowed for security reasons. There is a cloakroom with small lockers available for dropping off coats and other items before touring the museum.
Photography fans should be warned that it is kept very dark inside the museum to protect the clothing items that are on display, and flash photography is not allowed for the same reason. It took a lot of post-processing in Adobe Lightroom to make many of the photos you see in this article usable. I recommend coming prepared with good gear for low light. (I used a Sony RX100V and an iPhone 6S for my photos.)
Inside the Musée Yves Saint Laurent:
From the tie-wearing doorman to the elegant gold-edged design of the visitor’s guide, I was reminded from the moment that I entered that this is not a typical Paris museum. Musée Yves Saint Laurent seemed to attempt in as many ways as possible to maintain the luxury feel of the Yves Saint Laurent brand.
After I entered the front door of Musée Yves Saint Laurent, I climbed the half flight of marble stairs to the ticket booth in the lobby. I bought my gold bordered ticket and then turned left to pass through the former salon (that now holds an introductory video screen) to get to the cloakroom. It’s hard not to think that you are tasting just a tiny bit of the same experience that was had by so many rich and famous clients that visited Saint Laurent’s Paris haute couture house over the years. As I looked out the window in the cloakroom, I thought of what a rarefied view I was enjoying of this part of Paris.
I will admit by this point – surrounded by marble, gold leaf, and chandeliers – that I was feeling more than a bit shabby in my rain-dampened hair, non-designer jeans, and simple sweater.
But hey, at least I was wearing the requisite fashionable Parisian woman scarf, right?
My first stop in Musée Yves Saint Laurent was the room that I first walked through to get to the cloakroom. A large room with large windows overlooking Avenue Marceau, this room was the atelier’s former haute couture salon. It was where clients came for their fittings. The Yves Saint Laurent fashion shows also took place here until 1976. Now the room holds an introductory video for visitors to the museum.
After viewing the video, I crossed the lobby again to enter the heart of the museum. I highly recommend making sure you are following the path laid out in the visitor’s guide. It’s a winding path that crosses and retraces itself at times due to the nature of the museum being in the relatively small haute couture house. But it gets confusing if you don’t follow the path (and you may miss things accidentally).
The first few displays immediately gave me what I came to see – amazing Yves Saint Laurent fashions. It struck me right away how classic the lines were. Even most of the items from the 1970’s wouldn’t look out of place today, I thought. That is the magic of Saint Laurent.
Also in this first section of the museum was a large display wall that included note sheets from the planning of collections and shows. For instance, the sheet below is a sheet for planning the evening wear section of one collection’s show. It’s fascinating to see the details of the inner workings of how these things came together.
Being able to get so close to the clothes, you can really see the details in their structure, construction and embellishment that you can’t get when you see them on TV or in magazine photos. It is, after all, the details that make haute couture what it is: fine fabrics, perfect construction, extravagant embellishment materials.
I could have spent all day staring at the detail on this embroidered cape. I can only imagine what this must have looked swinging down a catwalk, with the beads catching the spotlights!
On the way to the top floor, there’s a stop to view a biographical video of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. This video is one of the most enlightening things in the museum about Yves Saint Laurent the man himself. It is definitely worth the wait (the viewing area is small so the line backs up onto the stairs).
The top floor of the house contains another fashion display of evening dresses. One of the things that visitors learn about at Musée Yves Saint Laurent are the many influences and inspirations that fed into the designer’s creative vision. This room displays dresses inspired by historic fashions, reinterpreted to be new for the modern era.
The only other thing on the top floor is the design studio (more on that later). After seeing that, visitors head back downstairs. The next stop is all the way to the bottom of the couture house on the ground floor. A small room there holds a series of video screens. The screens present the story of how a design moves through the fashion house from start to finish. Make sure to watch these videos in order, even if there is a line at a station. It gets really confusing jumping around in the narrative if you don’t!
After the videos, it’s back up the stairs to the upper ground floor where the museum tour started. Here a glittering wall displays accessories designed by Yves Saint Laurent to complement his clothing designs.
There’s also a few special dresses on display in this area. Among these is a display devoted to the influence of art on some of the Yves Saint Laurent designs. The most famous of these designs is undoubtedly the series of dresses for his Autumn-Winter 1965 collection based on Piet Mondrian’s work. I was familiar with the iconic Mondrian dresses, of course. But I had no idea that there were other pieces based on art by Van Gogh and others.
Seeing all of the fashion was really interesting and educational. But the highlight for me of visiting Musée Yves Saint Laurent turned out to be stepping into the designer’s studio. This large room on the house’s top floor appears almost frozen in time the day that Yves Saint Laurent retired. The feeling of interrupted activity was so strong in the room. It gave the feeling that the designer and his ateliers would return at any moment to resume their creative work.
A closer look at one of the desks reveals papers related to the exuberantly embroidered cape I’d admired downstairs.
There was so much detail in this room to examine that I could have stayed there all day! The bookshelves overflow with the books that served as some of Yves Saint Laurent’s design inspiration. There was sketches, color charts, photos and so much more of the ephemera of a working design studio. Only a row of light on the carpet marking the alarm line separates visitors from these wondrous treasures. (And in true Musée Yves Saint Laurent style, even the alarm is an elegant bell. No garish buzzers or sirens here!)
The studio’s shelves stacked with rolls of fabric samples and boxes of trim samples reminded me of my own studio. I started dreaming how wonderful it would be to create in this big, airy space in this wonderful city. How could you fail to create beautiful things in such surroundings?
Visitors should remember the museum is a labor of love by people who knew, worked with and loved Yves Saint Laurent. Some museum content is about the relationship between Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, his partner. Bergé was the driving force behind the museum until his death shortly before it opened. The museum is, in that sense, somewhat auto-biographical. It should be viewed in the same way that you would approach any other autobiographical storytelling.
That caution aside, though, I found Musée Yves Saint Laurent overall to be a very interesting, educational and enjoyable experience. I would certainly return there again. It’s my understanding that certain parts of the fashion displays are possibly intended to be temporary and rotate. So future visits may have new sights to see! I look forward to visiting and finding out.