Nov 06, 2011 12:00AM

YSL's muses & Oyster #95: Betty Catroux Interview

It was coup de foudre when we met, and we never left each other.

Yves Saint Laurent's close friend and muse, Loulou de la Falaise, passed away yesterday at the age of 63. The daughter of a Marquis and a model, de la Falaise was something of an aristocratic rebel and was rumoured to have been christened by Shocking, the Schiaparelli perfume, instead of Holy water. A fitting start to life for someone who was expelled from three schools.

Saint Laurent was always attracted to bold women. In fact, he surrounded himself by them - de la Falaise and his other henchwoman, Betty Catroux, were two such characters. Although de la Falaise championed YSL's famous Le Smoking tuxedo and once said that as a child she "thought skirts were pathetic", she actually became known for her feminine, bohemian style and her eclectic taste in jewellery. Which is why she ended up designing jewellery for YSL and then later under her own name.

Sartorial preferences aside, she will always be remembered - though she never liked the term - as one of the 20th Century's greatest muse's.

Coincidentally, for Oyster #95, Max Blagg interviewed Yves Saint Laurent's other great confidant, the enigmatic Betty Catroux. Catroux, along with de la Falaise, was an inspiration to the couturier for over 35 years. Blagg spoke with her about her time with Yves, and how she has spent her life 'doing nothing'. Though many would disagree.

Betty Catroux is a minimalist muse - at least when she is answering a barrage of tedious questions sent, by me, from New York to Paris. "I never made any effort; I am quite indifferent and unconcerned; I look ambiguous. I've dressed the same way practically since I was born. I don't dress as a woman. I'm not interested in fashion at all. I never learned anything; everything I do is natural and uncalculated." But what was the question?

Betty is Betty, a unique and enigmatic character in the rarefied world of Parisian fashion and style. La Catroux began her dreamlike odyssey as a tall, sinuous teenager, looking much as she does now: an androgynous figure in basic black jacket, pants and crisp white shirt; a beauty among other great sixties beauties like Anita Pallenberg, Marianne Faithfull, Loulou de la Falaise, Jane Birkin. Careless of her sex but certain of her sensuality, she drew men to her like filings to a magnet. Among them was the legendary couturier Yves Saint Laurent, then in the early stages of his incredible career.

They met at Regine's, the gayest nightclub in Paris. Their first encounter was an electric fusion of artist and muse - Yves immediately recognised his female counterpart. Betty's physical proportions fit the supple, flowing line that Yves etched in the air and reproduced on women's bodies, a line that magically transformed the women who wore his clothes. "Yves picked me up in a nightclub!" she recalls. "It was coup de foudre when we met, and we never left each other. After that we only lived for fun, two of us against the world. We hated normal life!"

Betty had already modelled at the tender age of 17 for an ageing Coco Chanel, but when she met Yves - her true double in body and soul - she refused to work for him. She just wanted to have fun, and her agile mind was an equal match for his slightly twisted sense of humour, his eccentric worldview. It was the swinging sixties, and by the following year - 1968 - even the French were kicking out the jams. University students were pulling up the paving stones of old Paris ("the beach beneath the street") and hurling them at the cops, inspiring Yves and others with their faux revolution - even though Yves was relaxing in Marrakech when the events of May '68 took place. When he got back to Paris he saw that the world had changed, and he rapidly translated this new energy into fresh creations. 1968 was also the year that Betty married interior designer Pierre Catroux, with whom she has two daughters, and who has patiently indulged her eccentricities for over forty years.

Betty's brief stay at Chanel had taught her how to avoid the vituperative jujitsu of a couture house, with all its backbiting, favouritism, malicious gossip; the real and imagined slights, sleights of hand, handouts; the hands in your pants. She rarely went to the YSL headquarters on Rue Spontini, where the business of fashion took place; she insisted on spending only playtime with Yves.

Betty's cool monochrome elegance would have worked beautifully in Godard's movies. He was a major influence on sixties style - and probably on Yves himself, who really wanted so badly to be a Bohemian, but the French were pretty square before '68. Betty disagrees: "Godard bores me," she says. "The French were square but we were not; we lived on our little cloud and did not need Godard!"

Nor did the call of the wild hippie trail appeal to her. If she went to Morocco or Kathmandu it would be in grand style, not with a sleeping bag. She didn't follow any fashion except her own; faithful to her black smoking jackets and long, slim pants. "We liked the hippie mentality, but since we loved luxury their lifestyle was not for us! It just meant more freedom and rebellion." The sixties raved on into the seventies and Yves' reputation expanded worldwide. For a few years he seemed genuinely possessed by the Muse, as well as possessing entirely the muses who surrounded him. Brilliant ideas simply poured out of him, and many were immediately copied and appropriated by a hundred other frock-makers. Betty was always present, through the years of super-highs and excruciating lows. They even went to rehab together, lounging in a fancy private clinic in Neuilly, passing notes to each other via a cooperative nurse.

Even though Betty claims not to read poetry, her definition of luxe, calme et volupte would be the family house in Provence, in the south of France; although, in keeping with her practiced detachment from ordinary life, she regards this place as her husband's, and herself as just a guest at his party. This lush region of France has in recent years been inundated by a wave of Americans and Brits, clutching their copies of Peter Mayle's bestselling book - but the Allied invasion has not affected Betty's retreat.

"The place in Provence is paradise, but I don't participate in anything material; I just sit among the shades of green and lavender and a few white roses. Provence has not changed; you always feel peaceful and far from the world, and there is beauty everywhere." As for fashion, despite being a permanent member of a great couturier's inner circle for 35 years, she claims to have less interest in fashion than ever. "I stopped at Tom Ford and Hedi Slimane," she says enigmatically.

Betty still talks to Yves every night, toasting his portrait with a glass of fine champagne. The painting, by Andy Warhol, was a gift from Yves' companion, Pierre Berge, after the designer's death. Pierre and Betty are close now, but it took her about 30 years to convince him that, despite appearances, she was not, and never would be, a bad influence on Yves. She has been true to her word.

In 1976, when Halston's lover Victor Hugo asked Betty what she did, she famously replied, "Nothing." Thirty-five years later, her answer has not changed. Betty defines 'doing nothing' as "having no obligations, not having to work ... I do what I want, when I want; I am completely free, in spite of being a kept woman - by my husband, and by Yves and Pierre Berge. Paris is still the best place to do nothing. It doesn't have the same energy as New York, but has much more charm." You might catch a glimpse of Betty strolling through her neighbourhood on the Rive Gauche, gracefully doing nothing on a daily basis. Yet, for such an existentialist, she seems very content. Perhaps it stems from three decades of being incessantly light and carefree around a manic-depressive genius. Even if she never worked a day in her life, she has done a terrific job so far.

Intro: Alice Cavanagh

Words: Max Blagg

Images courtesy of Fondation Pierre Berge - Yves Saint Laurent.