As 50 Yves Saint Laurent classics – from Le Smoking to the Mondrian dress – are shown in Britain for the first time, Marion Hume speaks to Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s partner in business and life, and the power behind the designer’s throne.
In 1974 the couturier Yves Saint Laurent and his partner in business and life, Pierre Bergé, were so flush with cash that they bought a three-storey townhouse in Paris on avenue Marceau, just north of the Seine. They established it as the nerve centre of the business they had forged together since 1961, which was then the most famous fashion house in the world. Its location, on the Right Bank, was chosen in spite of Saint Laurent’s own protests of ‘hating the bourgeoisie, their intransigence, their taste’ and the pair having already launched Rive Gauche, a groovy ready-to-wear line to appeal to the Left Bank bohemians. They had it decorated in opulent 1860s style, juxtaposed with contemporary art.
The New Nightlife, US Vogue September 1987
Saint Laurent died of brain cancer in 2008 at the age of 71 in Paris. Today, the avenue Marceau building houses the offices of La Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent. There is an exhibition space, which is open to the public, in the adjoining building, although on occasion some visitors are allowed access to what was the couture house, even past the unmarked white door into Saint Laurent’s studio, which has been preserved as a museum piece. On his desk are two pottery pups and other knick-knacks including little lions (he was born under the sign of Leo), a brass snake, pencils stuffed in jam jars, a thimble, a tinder-dry sheaf of wheat (the good luck symbol of haute couture), and tourist trinkets including a green rubber Statue of Liberty. The desk itself is small, on trestles, a little like something you might choose at Ikea because you can fit it in the car.
Pierre Bergé oversees the foundation, and continues to work from the office that was decorated in impressive style in the 1970s. There are no little scorpions for his star sign on the vast executive desk. Bergé, who turns 85 in November, has hardly settled on to a hard chair beneath the massive Andy Warhol canvas of his late partner before his cheeks puff up and he pronounces, ‘The time of Yves Saint Laurent, of Chanel, of Christian Dior is up!’ For Bergé, the big high-street brands such as Zara are showing the way forward. ‘I think the price of fashion today is ridiculous.’
Yves Saint Laurent-Le smoking campaign, 2012
Just as Saint Laurent invented a modern way for women to dress – adapting from menswear the pea coat, the trench, the pant suit and the jumpsuit in ways that were chic and never butch – so Bergé forged the modern fashion business when he took a talented but tortured 23-year-old – who believed wholeheartedly in his own brilliance yet told everyone who would listen that he felt ‘trapped in a cage’ – and built a mystique into a marque and, in turn, into an empire.
At the first collection Yves Saint Laurent showed under his own name, when he was 25, he was already astonishingly famous, having been the boy wonder at the House of Dior since the age of 21, garnering press accolades from Paris to New York and dressing the cream of French society. It was a new, hipper crowd who attended his first eponymous show: Françoise Sagan, who had caused a sensation with her teenage novel Bonjour Tristesse; the ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire; the cosmetics queen Helena Rubinstein; and Victoire, the mannequin of the moment. In the 1960s and 70s everyone wanted to wear Saint Laurent, including the actress Catherine Deneuve, who remained a lifelong friend after being costumed by him for the 1967 Buñuel film Belle de Jour and being among the first customers (she bought a pant suit) on the day Saint Laurent expanded from couture into ready-to-wear. Bianca Jagger wore a white Saint Laurent tuxedo – and nothing underneath – when she married Mick in 1971. For 40 years, Bergé managed the business while Saint Laurent focused entirely on the creative side. Bergé says fashion is a tennis match, ‘between the fashion designer and women. If you don’t have those two people, you cannot create.’
Saint Laurent in 1953
Bergé both loves and loathes the media; as a press baron himself (he has co-owned Le Monde since 2010, although his first foray into publishing was with his own newspaper, in his teens) he values free speech but has been known to ban fashion writers. ‘Ban? That’s a legend, it’s not true. I didn’t banish anybody,’ he says. ‘Well, maybe once.’ In 1972, following bad reviews for the previous season’s collection, Bergé barred all the press except for Paris Match (it helped that Victoire was married to its editor). But now Bergé wants Britain to know that the greatest creations of Saint Laurent are – at last – coming our way. Of course, the man himself went to London, when it was swinging and he was young. But what is incredible is there has never been a UK retrospective of the designer who was among the trio of 20th-century greats – even Coco Chanel agreed that just as she took the baton from Balenciaga, so she would be passing it to Yves. (That said, Chanel could give and take; in 1970, the year before her death, she told a French television show that Saint Laurent was her natural heir, but this had not stopped her trying to poach Bergé to head her perfume division, nor telling the American reporter-in-Paris, James Brady, ‘Monsieur Saint Laurent has great taste. And the more he copies me, the better taste he displays.’) Bergé’s view is, ‘If Chanel gave women their freedom, it was Saint Laurent who empowered them.’
Next month, Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal – a reference to the designer’s observation that ‘fashion fades; style is eternal’ – opens at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, Co Durham. Built in the style of a 19th-century French chateau, the Bowes Museum is the perfect location for this exhibition, which is being co-curated with the Fondation and follows similar shows in Brussels, Denver, Morocco, Casablanca, Montreal, San Francisco, New York and Paris.
A paper doll and her outfits – early experiments in fashion from a teenage Saint Laurent
So while Paris prepares for the haute couture shows, Bergé (along with Saint Laurent’s beloved dog Moujik, the fourth generation to carry the name) is heading to the North-East for the opening gala. For the public, the pilgrimage will be to see, up close, 50 fabulous garments, among them a safari jacket, a hot-pink cape revealing Saint Laurent’s mastery of colour, as well as pieces inspired by Mondrian, Matisse, Picasso, Cocteau, Braque and Van Gogh. And, of course, there will be Le Smoking, a version of which appeared in almost every collection from 1966. The tuxedo pant suit was most famously photographed down a dark alley by Helmut Newton, who, being Newton, then took a near-identical shot, this time with a second model alongside the first, wearing nothing but heels. As to Saint Laurent’s daring, you can join the dots between a scandalous see-through dress of 1968 and one worn by Beyoncé to the Met Ball in May created by Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy. Saint Laurent was also among the first to bring what was then called ‘the exotic’ into northern European dress, inspired as he was by the Ballets Russes, Mongolia, China and Africa, the continent of his birth.
A dress from the 1965 Mondrian collection
Yves Saint Laurent was born in 1936 in Oran, Algeria. Pierre Bergé had arrived six years earlier, on Ile d’Oléron off the west coast of France. The feisty, stocky, bookish Bergé walked out of school without gaining his baccalauréat, so keen was he to get on with life. At a dinner party in Paris in 1958, he saw a tall, skinny boy and experienced a coup de foudre, a lightning bolt of love that would last, in its way, until a deathbed ceremony in 2008 made Saint Laurent and Bergé civil partners under the law. ‘I don’t know how to say goodbye because I can never leave you,’ Bergé said at the funeral, which was attended by President Nicolas Sarkozy and fashion royalty including Hubert de Givenchy, Valentino and Jean Paul Gaultier. Many women in attendance wore trouser suits in homage.
When they met, Saint Laurent was newly famous, the gawky gamin who had stepped up at Dior after Christian Dior had dropped dead at the age of 52. But although Le Figaro declared that Saint Laurent’s first collection for Dior had done no less than ‘save France’, a young man’s urge to interest society ladies in street style – bomber jackets, no less, albeit in alligator – was soon deemed too far, too fast. The powers at Dior chose not to attempt to block Saint Laurent’s call-up papers, issued as part of President de Gaulle’s conscription drive for soldiers to fight for France in the Algerian War of Independence. He never saw combat; he suffered a nervous breakdown after only 19 days in barracks, then was admitted to a series of military hospitals over the next two months, and helped back to health by his knight, Pierre.
Bergé sued Dior for damages in lieu of notice and for breach of contract on the grounds that Saint Laurent was not offered back his job when he was discharged from military service. The courts awarded 680,000 francs; using this as seed capital, the couple founded YSL.
Elsa Martinelli, Françoise Hardy and Catherine Deneuve at a YSL show in 1967
Over the next four decades Bergé licensed the name and the famous spindly YSL motif (designed by the artist Cassandre) so widely that by 1985 hundreds of products bearing the brand generated sales of $1.2 billion worldwide. There were even YSL cigarettes, although the designer himself smoked Kools. Bergé built a global perfume business and managed, through deft debt leveraging, to transform the company into a global behemoth, the first French fashion house to be floated on the stock exchange (in 1989). A decade later, a further sale to the luxury-goods group PPR (now Kering) would see Bergé and Saint Laurent with creative control only of the couture house.
Saoirse Ronan in Yves Saint Laurent’s haute couture dress
While continuing with the haute couture until he retired in 2002, Yves Saint Laurent had already handed over ready-to-wear responsibilities to his creative aide-de-camp, Alber Elbaz (now the creative director at Lanvin), whom Bergé still admires (‘I like Alber very much. He’s very, very talented.’). Of the current Saint Laurent designer (over whose appointment Bergé had no say) Bergé pronounces, ‘Hedi Slimane is the only heir of Saint Laurent.’
Claudia Schiffer wears the Yves Saint Laurent’s wedding gown, 22 January 1997 in Paris
In 2009, the year after Saint Laurent died, Bergé sold an astonishing collection of 733 works of art and pieces of furniture that they had amassed together from the home they had shared on rue de Babylone, including Renaissance bronzes, rare works by Brancusi, Léger and Picasso, and exceptional art deco furniture. The record-breaking sale raised more than €374 million, despite the auction coming in the wake of the global financial crash. Bergé, the most celebrated member of France’s champagne socialists, la caviar gauche, gave it away. ‘I don’t like money,’ he shrugs. ‘I do not respect money. Not at all.’
But still, how did it feel to watch a lifetime go under the hammer?
‘I was calm. The sale [price] meant we have an eye, we have very good taste.’
The money went mainly to battle Aids. Bergé, who was never in any closet, is an energetic supporter of the fight, and of battles for gay rights, for human rights. Yves Saint Laurent was one of the first Western brands to break into China and was doing a tidy business when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989. Bergé not only ceased trading overnight in China, he announced that the original Rive Gauche store on rue de Tournon was available to house political refugees.
Sketches for Spring-Summer 1968
‘Today nobody has conviction,’ he fumes. ‘Politicians have no conviction. Artists have no conviction. You have to have it and you have to have love. I am not talking about sexual love. I’m talking about love of art, quality, integrity, honesty.’
Then, honestly, did he mind playing second fiddle all those years?
‘It pleased me to be in the shadow like that. I used to like it very much.’
Saint Laurent with his muses Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux in 1969
Those who knew them both said it was Saint Laurent who held quiet yet ferocious power. Is that true?
Bergé nods. ‘Believe me, you have to be careful of shy people. Shy people, they are tougher, they are stronger.’
An atheist, Bergé wants his ashes thrown to the winds of Marrakesh where he and Saint Laurent built a second life together, under the sun that reminded Yves of Algeria where he was born and allowed him a freedom away from the scrutiny of Paris. They first visited the rose-walled city in 1962, bought a traditional riad in the medina in 1967, then another, before settling on a larger villa on the edge of town where in the later years Saint Laurent would spend much of the year.
A look from Yves Saint Laurent’s ballets 1976 haute couture collection vogue in december 1976
Bergé is flying to Morocco the day after we meet, back to Villa Oasis, now reached by a road that has been paved and named rue Yves Saint Laurent. The villa is separated by a high wall from the Majorelle Garden, created by the French painter of that name and restored thanks to the generosity of Bergé and Saint Laurent, and opened to the public. There, a simple monument stands, above an inscription that states no more than his name, profession, and dates and places of his birth and death. Bergé happily poses for selfies with Saint Laurent pilgrims next to it. ‘But you know, one day somebody asked me, “Can I make a selfie with you?” Then she said, “Thank you very much. Who are you?” ’
At the memory of that, fashion’s greatest kingmaker roars with laughter.
In Vietnam, from early June 2016, fashion followers can track fashion trends as well as discover their own style with the first outpost of Yves Saint Laurent at Union Square, HCMC.
Source: The telegraph