Yves Saint Laurent changed the way women dress more than they know.

The Algerian-born designer, who died last week at age 71, was the champion of beatnik black, pop-art prints, safari jackets and peasant skirts still fashionable decades later. But his most enduring legacy is so pervasive as to seem almost unremarkable: pants.

Saint Laurent’s elegant pantsuits broke barriers between the sexes, a sartorial revolution that fit a social one and changed the way generations of women dressed.

“For a long time now,” he said upon his retirement in 2002, “I have believed that fashion was not only supposed to make women beautiful, but to reassure them, to give them confidence, to allow them to come to terms with themselves.”

He was one of the most influential designers during the most important era of Parisian fashion, Christian Dior’s hand-picked successor and a peer to Coco Chanel and Cristobal Balenciaga.

“Every woman in the world, sometimes without even knowing it, has something in her closet inspired by Yves Saint Laurent,” said the American designer Michael Kors. “His genius is irreplaceable.”

Saint Laurent’s signature was taking menswear silhouettes and slimming them down to fit a feminine shape. He may not have been the first to put a woman in a trenchcoat or safari jacket, but “they’re indelibly associated with him because of the spin he gave them for the modern woman,” said Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

“Everyone wanted to be Yves Saint Laurent. He was such an unbelievably gifted man,” Oscar de la Renta said by e-mail. “He was a great innovator and some of his trends, like the smoking suit, are as influential today as when he first designed them. He just had an extraordinary eye for fantasy and every woman wanted to be a part of that world.”

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