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How Yves Saint Laurent Picked His Favorite Models

The late couturier offered his muses a token of his affection in the shape of a pendant

These days, top models are hatched through a superficial science involving beauty, pedigree, Instagram followers, Tyra Banks, or some combination thereof. But for Yves Saint Laurent, deciding the model that would close each of his shows was so personal and subjective that he used a heart-shaped pendant, a kind of artist’s signature, to adorn his selection. This three-by-five-inch trinket, created a year after the house’s founding in 1961, will be a centerpiece of the inaugural exhibit at the Museé Saint Laurent Paris, opening on Oct. 3 in the designer’s former Paris salon.

The sentimental symbol may seem at odds with the fashion house’s latter-day hyper-edgy image, but from the start of his 40-year reign, Saint Laurent valued sincerity over appearances: “Without an elegance of the heart, there is no elegance,” he is often quoted as saying. Nor did he cling to material wealth: “I’d like to imagine that [costume] jewels are more spiritual than real rubies or diamonds,” he said in his first interview with the press in 1954.

Yves Saint Laurent’s heart-shaped pendant was worn by his favorite model in each show.

Yves Saint Laurent’s heart-shaped pendant was worn by his favorite model in each show.

Indeed, throughout Saint Laurent’s extended selection process, the bauble—inlaid not with precious gems but Swarovski crystals—became a mythical talisman. “He always had maybe seven or eight models that worked during the creation of the collection. There was a competition between all the models, of course,” says Head of Collections Aurelie Samuel. “He was a gentleman, but he always chose the heart for his favorite one.’” Those who wore it on multiple occasions, like Somalia-born Amalia Vairelli, instantly acquired “muse” status.

Encased separately from the rest of the jewelry collection, the pendant will—quite literally—be the museum’s beating heart: “The light on the display will open and close, mimicking the movement of the heart,” says Samuel. And there’s no better home for the late designer’s heart given the museum’s president—Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s lifelong partner.