Karl Lagerfeld will go down in fashion history as the man who forever reinvented what it meant to be a fashion designer; Yves Saint Laurent stands as perhaps the last great example of the traditional Parisian couturier. Yet, as different as both these men's legacies in fashion would come to be, you can trace the beginning of both of their careers to single photograph taken all the way back in 1954 in Paris. In it, a 21-year-old Lagerfeld stands next to a model wearing a canary yellow garment that had won him first place in the coat category of a competition that would come to be known in later years as the Woolmark Prize. The award was only in its second year, but the established couturiers Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Balmain sat on the jury. Those masters would bestow the highest prize, in the evening gown category, to a then 18-year-old Yves Saint Laurent, who is directly to Lagerfeld's left in the photo.
The two young men, one from Germany and the other from Algeria, would have only just met that day, and no one would have any indication that they'd go on to define French fashion for a generation. Friendly to start off, and later rivals in fashion (and, more personally, for the attention of the young man about town named Jacques de Bascher), the designers' relationship couldn't accurately be described as that of friends, enemies, or frenemies. It was more like one was the yin to the other's yang, the two coming together to form a double helix that would alter fashion's DNA forever.
While Lagerfeld wouldn't take the reins of Chanel until his mid-40s, Saint Laurent found himself quite suddenly at the top of the Parisian fashion heap just a few years after the Woolmark Prize. He had been hired by Christian Dior shortly after his win, and was, rather surprisingly, picked to replace Dior after the master's untimely death in 1957. Saint Laurent was just 21. His first few collections were received warmly, but a later collection that mixed the codes of the house with youthful beatnik-inspired fashions was met with savage reviews, even if in retrospect it belied his gifts for channeling counterculture into haute couture. He was eventually drafted into the French army during the Algerian War, and after experiencing a breakdown during duty, he received word in 1960 that he had been fired by Dior. No matter, perhaps Saint Laurent was always destined for stardom under his own name. He filed a successful lawsuit against Dior, and his namesake house was founded in 1961, its success evident by the fact that it still stands today.
Lagerfeld, meanwhile, spent his first few decades largely content behind the scenes. Following a stint working for Balmain after his prize win, Lagerfeld got his first taste of couture designing for Jean Patou under the assumed name "Roland Karl," though his designs were not well received by the fashion press. Soon, he found more success as a fashion gun for hire, freelancing for various firms. He began designing furs for Fendi in 1965 (a relationship he would maintain until his death), and contributed dresses to Chloé until the company decided to hire him to design the whole collection. At various points, he contributed work to houses as varied as Charles Jourdan, Cúriel, Krizia, Ballantyne, Isetan, Tiziani of Rome, and several others over the years. A signature Karl Lagerfeld label was launched, though it would remain more of an exercise in licensing and was never the focal point of its namesake's creative energies.
You could say that Saint Laurent was driven by his id, exploring his distinct passions and creative impulses for his own house, even if sometimes the rest of the fashion world wouldn't catch up until years later. Lagerfeld was more driven by his superego, and was apt to compare himself to a computer. He received each assignment like a problem to be solved, and drew up his library-like knowledge of a wide range of subjects to find an artful solution. Those inclinations could be found elsewhere in the men's lives as well. Lagerfeld famously shied away from drugs and alcohol, with Diet Coke being his most notable lifelong vice. Saint Laurent, however, was known to indulge, often to the worries of those closest to him. Lagerfeld, notably, dropped friends who ran afoul of him. Saint Laurent kept a core group of muses and confidants throughout his life.
By the early 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent was posing nude for the campaign of his own cologne, while Lagerfeld was still best known only to those in the know, maintaining an almost stereotypically German devotion to work. Though, it was the events of the ’70s that would see the two men's friendship end.
At the beginning of the decade, Lagerfeld met the young French dandy Jacques de Bascher, who quickly became the love of his life, though Lagerfeld wasn't particularly possessive. De Bascher had a brief affair with Saint Laurent, a story that didn't become well known publicly until Alicia Drake's 2006 book, The Beautiful Fall. The impression was that perhaps the rivalry between Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld had been even more bitter than previously perceived, but Lagerfeld finally opened up about the situation in the 2014 book Jacques de Bascher, dandy de l’ombre, placing the blame for any bad blood on Saint Laurent's business partner, Pierre Berge.
“Of course I knew about the affair with Saint Laurent," he said. "I had been close friends with Yves for more than 20 years. We used to go out in the early days with Anne-Marie Munoz and Victoire Doutreleau. Pierre smashed that to bits. He said I engineered their liaison to destabilize the house of Saint Laurent."
Whatever the case, in the '80s, Lagerfeld finally attained a position in fashion that would rival Saint Laurent's: taking over creative director duties at Chanel, a job he would hold until his death. Tellingly, during one of the first major interviews Lagerfeld gave after securing the Chanel job, he took numerous jabs at Saint Laurent.
"That particular Yves I don’t like because I know another one. He is one of the funniest people alive, with an incredible sense of humor, who can do unbelievable impressions…who loved to use swear words and loved anything scatological…who was really very funny," he told a French magazine, according to The Beautiful Fall. "It is an absurd idea when he says that he didn’t have a youth. I knew him myself when he had one, but he only had one desire at the time…to be rich and famous.”
Saint Laurent would turn over the duties of designing his brand's ready-to-wear to his assistant in 1987, and would retire completely from design in 2002, six years before his death. Lagerfeld, meanwhile, continued to add new gigs and assignments to his résumé right up the very end (he had his debut sculpture exhibit only last October).
While Saint Laurent maintained the old tradition of a couturier loyal only to his own house and his own inspiration, Lagerfeld pioneered the model of a designer who would thrive by meeting the demands of his employers, anticipating the needs of the market, or perhaps, as Lagerfeld would prefer to think of it, paying attention to the present.