Visionnaire: On the Life and Death of Pierre Bergé

A behemoth in the realms of both fashion and art who will be fiercely remembered.

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What has fashion come to? The question seems to be buzzing around the heads of designers, executives, retailers, editors and even shoppers on a constant basis these days. Is it a cold-hearted, data-driven trend machine? Is it a romantic representation of culture? Is it art? Is it business? Is it evolving? Is it dead?

The answer probably lies somewhere in the “demilitarized zone between art and commerce,” as Glenn O’Brien used to say. If anyone knew, it was Pierre Bergé. And now it’s too late to ask.

If you know the work of Yves Saint Laurent, then you know the work of Pierre Bergé. He ran the label and was in a long-term relationship (although not consistently a romantic one) with the eponymous designer since 1961, getting officially married in 2008, in the final few days of Saint Laurent’s life. He is generally remembered as the businessman behind Yves’ hypersensitive artiste, but his legacy is far greater than that of a fashion financier.

In 1948, Bergé moved to Paris to become a rare book dealer at the age of 18. He would never lose his narrative-driven view of the world, informed no doubt by a lifelong love affair with literature. The legend goes that on his first day living in the City of Light, poet Jacques Prévert fell on him, having toppled out of a window on the Champs-Élysées. He went on to make a few more friends in his early days, including Jean Cocteau and a firebrand by the name of Albert Camus.

The modern perspective on fashion is that it is a business, and therefore the archetype pairing of creative visionary + savvy CEO operating as one unit has become engrained in our collective memory. We think of designers and their holding companies, the Pinaults and Arnaults of the world managing the books while the Micheles and Ghesquières cut fabric and source inspiration. We think of Marc Jacobs and Paul Duffy. In reality, however, the only pair that can rival the innovative model first employed by
Bergé in his handling of the business and personal life of Yves Saint Laurent is the emperor himself Valentino Garavani and his partner Giancarlo Giammetti, who actually met only two years after Bergé and Saint Laurent did.

During his tenure at YSL, which he co-founded in 1961, Bergé was famously remembered as an imposing and serious figure. By 1967, YSL Rive Gauche was launched as a ready-to-wear line and Saint Laurent became a household name, alongside “Safari,” “Mondrian” and, of course, “Le Smoking” which revolutionized what womenswear could look like and tackled contemporary notions of femininity head-on. “Chanel gave women freedom.” Bergé once said, “But Yves Saint Laurent gave them power.” Bergé’s points of view were strong and bordered on nihilistic. He once stated that “I don’t believe in the soul, neither in my own, nor in that of… objects.” For someone who would amass one of the most influential and soulful collection of art — and yes, objects — in contemporary history, it’s a vexing statement.

About that art collection. Its sale was the subject of “L’Amour Fou,” Pierre Thoretton’s intimate documentary about Saint Laurent, narrated by Bergé himself. The two were treasure-hunters on a global scale, amassing around 733 pieces into a museum-caliber compendium that included lavish gold Buddha statues, rare Turkish rugs, jeweled daggers from India and an impressive assortment of gilded Louis XV furniture. There was also the case of two disputed bronze fountainheads that disappeared from China’s Summer Imperial Palace in 1860 during the second Opium War — which Bergé decided to auction off despite protests from the government of China (they were later purchased by Kering chief François-Henri Pinault and returned to the Chinese government as part of a diplomatic mission alongside French President François Hollande). The entire collection went for $484 million. Bergé described the three-day auction in an interview with the The New York Times as “Very violent. An armchair for 80, 90 million. Very violent. It was an exorcism.”

In addition to being an intimidating chief executive and world-renowned art collector, Bergé was a prominent philanthropist and gay rights activist, sat on the board of Le Monde, helped to fight against the AIDS crisis in France, founded the Yves Saint Laurent Foundation with his partner, built the Museum of Berber art in Marrakesh as well as contributed to the lifelong project of Saint Laurent’s Jardin Majorelle (which attracts over half a million visitors each year), was a patron and honorary President of the Paris National Opera, evolved into a known political animal and dear friend of François Mitterrand and was appointed a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 1992.

Pierre Bergé by Hedi Slimane

Bergé began to ramp down his involvement with the YSL brand after it sold to Sanofi in 1993, and continued to distance himself by 1999, after it was purchased by Gucci. He had nothing kind to say about the creative directors who succeeded his longtime partner, including Tom Ford who he deemed “incapable of succeeding at Yves Saint Laurent. Therefore it was, as you know, a flop,” and Stefano Pilati who he referred to as “nothing at all.” He did, however, have an eye for young talent when he appointed Hedi Slimane as collections and art director in 1997.

In many ways, Slimane carries the spiritual torch for Bergé, his mentor, as well as Saint Laurent even if he no longer is actively designing there. Both Slimane and Bergé were intellectuals who view aesthetic as a term of philosophy and not the domain of “creative directors.” Both were technocrats, valuing intellect and eschewing the opinions of the masses as ill-informed and decidedly unglamorous, no matter how controversial their decisions could be at times.

Pierre Bergé by Hedi Slimane

Bergé died yesterday, at the age of 86, at a time when the fashion industry has begun to lose more relevance than ever before. Department stores respond to short-term trends over long-term vision, with celebrity-driven pop-ups a desperate cry for help as the likes of Neiman Marcus (which also operates Bergdorf Goodman) tries to dig out of $4.8 Billion of debt and Barneys New York CEO Daniella Vitale espouses the power of big data in a last-ditch effort to sound like a hip tech startup. High fashion’s frivolity has extended into the absurd avant-garde of Vetements and uninspired streetwear has become the new normal in the menswear space. The internet has homogenized much of the look and feel of youth culture in the world’s major cities, leaving little room for innovation or self-expression. Today, individuals with the vision, business savvy and immense taste level of Bergé are few and far between, especially in the realm of fashion.

Bergé was above the fray. He had the point of view of an aesthete and the fortitude of a realist to make it all come to life. He was, as Karl Lagerfeld once derogatorily dubbed him, a man of “old books.” He was a thoroughly modern, yet distinctly 20th Century entity — a man of principles and unparalleled taste. He was a behemoth in the realms of both fashion and art who will be fiercely remembered.

After a life well lived, only one question remains: Why sell all the art? Bergé answered this himself, in equally romantic and pragmatic fashion. “In April 2007 I learned that Yves Saint Laurent had a brain tumor, and he died on June 1, 2008.” He is recorded as saying. “During those 14 months I had plenty of time to think about what would happen. There was only one solution: the auction. An auction establishes memory. That’s what I want to do.”

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