What do you get when you pair a trouser suit with stilettos? A 'smoking' of course. Laurence Benaim talks about Yves Saint Laurent's iconic ensemble.

It is 1966: France has just introduced the contraceptive pill, women are loosening their girdles, burning their bras, wearing psychedelic kaftans and discarding social conventions. Cut to the Hôtel Forain in the sixteenth arrondissement: France's most talented young couturier has just presented, quite simply, the most beautiful straight jacket in the world – 'le smoking' – at his haute couture collection. Named after the French word for a tuxedo, his black androgynous trouser suit appeared in force at the designer's ready-to-wear collection the following year – and women went straight out and bought it at his newly-opened Rive Gauche boutique.

The revolutionary 'Le Smoking' was perhaps the most powerful example of how the couturier has relied entirely on his own sense of aesthetics to express a social mood. With 'le Smoking' he hijacked the symbol of men's power and paired it with women's ultimate accessory of seduction: the suit and the stiletto. No chic, independent-minded woman could resist such a combination. As Pierre Bergé, the couturier's long-term business partner put it: "Yves Saint Laurent transformed woman into a queen who, in her 'smoking', dares to check the king."

Following the opening of 'Smoking Forever', a celebration of nearly four decades of 'smokings' in various forms at the Fondation Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent in Paris, we talked to Laurence Benaim, specialist on couturier and founder and editor-in-chief of 'Stiletto' magazine.

According to Pierre Bergé, Chanel gave women freedom and YSL power. In your opinion, what was so powerful about the smoking?
Yves Saint Laurent gave women the power to be themselves, that is, multi-dimensional. He freed them from accepted feminine codes of behavior by proving that elegance is first and foremost a state of mind, a look.

Do you agree that YSL designed the smoking primarily to emancipate women, or more because the tuxedo's clean silhouette suited his design aesthetic?
In my opinion, Yves Saint Laurent respects women too much to believe that he liberated them. He proved that darkness can be as dazzling as light, that black was not the prerogative of the little black dress ; he gave black an almost cinematographic resonance. When I think of the smoking, I think of the definition of night: sovereign, infinite. With a smoking you can be at ease anywhere, move from one world, one evening, one city to another without being a hostage to fashion, which is first and foremost meant to clothe a person.

YSL was the first to pair stilettos with trousers, blending sheer femininity with a garment symbolizing power. Would the smoking have been such a hit with women if it was not paired with heels, do you think?
What is interesting is that he avoided the tom-boy look in order to magnify woman and her infinite power of seduction. Heels are an element of seduction, and Yves Saint Laurent used them, magnified, as he magnified an image, hair, jewels, using all these assets in the service of a desire pushed to the extreme : seduction. Not an easy type of seduction – exposed cleavage, perched on impossibly high heels, silly bejewelled sandals. The idea was more about seduction "on the move" for women who are not decorative objects, controling the force they use like a weapon.

When you visited the exhibition Smoking Forever what was your most lasting impression?
I like to keep the idea that history is in movement, that the smoking is a message of love which can only be defined in a space.

YSL created dozens of different versions of the smoking over the years, which is your preferred look? Why?
Rather than having a preferred look, what fascinates me about Yves Saint Laurent's smokings is the realization of an idea, the obsessional side of a couturier tracing a black line season after season ; that line could illustrate the changes of a silhouette or the evolution of time.

Why did you call your magazine 'Stiletto'?

STILETTO / str'let.../ n. (pl. -os) 1. a short dagger with a thick blade. 2. pointed instrument for making piercing holes for eyelets or embroidery, etc. 3. (in full stiletto heel) a. a long tapering heel of a shoe. b. a shoe with such a heel.[It., dimmin. Of stilo, dagger (as STYLUS)

Why 'Stiletto'? The magazine returns to the roots of fashion, to the inspirations and first sketches, to the birth of the creative process. It explores the link between the beautiful and the bizarre, tracing fashion as it pertains to the world, reflecting our desires, our fears, our dreams. We wish to be the reference point of fashion culture : a magazine about style and the pleasure derived from it, a magazine that celebrates fantasy and individuality.

'Stiletto' combines the pleasure of the eye and the craft of the hand, the spirit of the senses in unison. In order to uncover style in the things that touch us in our daily lives – from beauty to architecture, perfume to gastronomy, contemporary art to furnishings, accessories to jewelry – Stiletto will explore the genesis of design from within, with studio visits, glimpses behind the scenes, personal diaries, private conversations.

We believe that true understanding, comes from sharing the dreams of creators, examining the intimate process of their work. The 1990s exhausted the style potential of "less is more": minimalim gave justification to many imposters. The cult of the moment invaded our time. Today we are hungry for fantasies that tell the truth, for art that is truly lasting.

Like the stiletto that searches, like the pointed heel that seduces, cosmopolitan and Parisian, Stiletto wants to give back sense to the senses, to plunge into the heart of our times, to not simply sleep but to dream.

Stilettos are the ultimate symbol of feminine sexuality. Why have heels become the fashion item of the early 21st century?
Stiletto heels are interesting in that they project on those that look at them particular images, and to allow those that wear them to play with that. Not all high heels have the same force and some flat sandals express an extraordinary delicacy. Beyond the myth of Sex and the City, I would say that high heels are part of the charms of seduction today.

After decades of emancipation, do you think that women have finally decided that ultra feminine attire is the best weapon to achieve power?
I believe that power has no gender; that the ultimate power is to be yourself, and to come to terms with all the contradictions of one's sex, that is to say man-man, woman-woman, man-woman, woman-man, at all moments of life. Here's hoping that we have that sense of exhilaration.
Your new men's magazine is called 'Stiletto Homme'. Why did you think this paradoxical title is fitting today?
I don't like to think of it as a paradox, since, for me, there isn't one. 'Stiletto' is first and foremost an attitude: exploring inner beauty. The magazine is geared to the 'meterosexual' – what brought about the rise of this new man do you think?
The concept is: focus on a man that is as pleasing to men and he is to a woman. Avoid the typical virility stance or effeminate posing.

The front cover of your first issue of Stiletto Homme shows a black and white photo of a man in a tuxedo. Would you like to see a return to YSL elegance for men? Why?
This elegance is reserved for evenings, when many men of my generation, and younger, rediscover a certain pleasure in codes of dress, rules, rituals, without the encumbent nostalgia, just with the desire to please, to please oneself, without becoming caricatures: it's a question of lifestyle.

Do you think men's attitudes have changed regarding their perception of themselves?
Men accept more and more their sensibility, they are not afraid to cry sometimes. I think that what has changed is the power to speak up about emotion; and clothing is part of the language of expressing that emotion.

'Smoking Forever' is at the Fondation Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent, 5 avenue Marceau, Paris 75116, until April 23, 2006.