Pierre Bergé as I like to remember him
Pierre Bergé passed two weeks ago, but this Friday Paris will come together to celebrate his last great project – the opening of the Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent museum - the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris. Bergé was one of the great icons of both France and fashion. As the long-time partner and business brain behind Yves Saint Laurent he was the role model for a whole generation of managers on how to build a fashion empire based on the talent of a visionary designer.
Known for his raging bull outspokenness, he wrote a unique page in fashion history, one that will never be forgotten thanks to this remarkable museum.
Our global editor-in-chief Godfrey Deeny, who interviewed the entrepreneur over a 30-year period, remembers Bergé one of fashion’s most unique characters.
I met Pierre Bergé on my first day working in fashion in 1988. John Fairchild, back then the Godfather de la Mode and boss of Women’s Wear Daily, introduced us. The next week I duly went to his office for my first major fashion interview for WWD. Bergé was a man of Napoleonic ambition and supreme self-confidence, who loved mocking other rival designers. That season, Romeo Gigli was the toast of Paris, but Bergé insisted on calling him Gigi. Armani had just revolutionized men’s fashion by radically reducing his power shoulder suit, and Bergé snapped that “all Armani can do is take the padding out of shoulders.”
It was my first sit-down with Bergé in his office at 5 avenue Marceau, seated hawk-and voluble underneath Andy Warhol’s famed portrait of Saint Laurent. A conversation that continued in dozens of meetings over three decades.
Like so many successful people in fashion, especially in Paris, Bergé was an outsider, born on the Atlantic coast at La Rochelle. Saint Laurent was too; his hometown was Oran in Algeria. When Bergé discovered that I was Irish, he told me how desperately he want to buy a country manor in Galway, but because of Irish quarantine laws he could not bring his beloved Yorkshire terrier, Ficelle, with him, so he dropped the idea. “Why do the Irish have these stupid laws?” he said, beginning a running lament that went on for years. Both Ficelle and Saint Laurent’s French bulldogs - there were four different versions all called Moujik - were tough critters. Moujik once bit a hole in the leg of my Armani suit at a preview, and Ficelle 'grrrr'ed at me when I tried to put him on top of Bergé’s desk at our first shoot.
Above all, Bergé remained unceasing in his support of Saint Laurent. In those days, as Bureau Chief of Women’s Wear Daily, I had a preview with Yves two days before each show, to be introduced to the collection and shoot it for the cover of the newspaper. Bergé would sit patiently while Yves turned up late, the worse for wear for his demons and addictions, yet he never once told the couturier what to do. “One time I suggested Yves take out a certain blazer, and out of spite he added another dozen looks, so I never offered any more advice since,” he conceded.
Bergé really did revolutionize fashion by bravely taking Saint Laurent where no other house dared to go. Into football: the Yves Saint Laurent catwalk show before the 1998 World Cup Final in Paris with a cast of some 300 models eventually forming into the houses’ classical YSL insignia – is still the largest audience ever to witness a runway show, over one billion people.
“Yves never went to a football match in his life. But when he came to the stadium he was very emotional. And I have rarely seen him happier than when Zidane scored. Especially considering their families were both from Algeria.” And, a decade before, to the Fête de l’Humanité of the Communist Party in north Paris. “Yves before thousands of Communists, who maybe were not in love with the haute couture. Possibly they didn’t even know what it even was. But it was an absolute triumph!”
Never a fan of football, Bergé attended Six Nations rugby matches, and twice called me on the Monday mornings after Ireland lost to France, allegedly with some news, but really to rub salt in my wounds. “President Mitterrand and I very much enjoyed seeing Ireland play this weekend,” he would chuckle. Though pals with the great socialist politician, Bergé always called himself a Patron de la Gauche.
After launching the house of Saint Laurent in 1961, Bergé built a defining fashion brand. He also dipped his fingers successfully into a whole slew of diverse businesses. Besides being part of a triumvirate that controls Le Monde, France’s respected left-of-center daily, he was also the key shareholder in a booming French caviar business based in the Gironde. He has also dabbled in art – both as the president of the Paris Opera during the presidency of Francois Mitterrand and de facto driving force behind Drouot, France’s largest auction house – and politics. Bergé strongly supported Ségolène Royal during her nearly successful run to be French president in 2007. When I asked him about it, he responded: “Well, I did pay for her office, that’s quite a lot really.”
Though his final project was the Fondation Pierre Bergé — Yves Saint Laurent, with its remarkable collection of some 7,000 vintage outfits. It's an artistic double whammy – opening not one but two museums devoted to the great Saint Laurent. One in Paris this Friday and one in Marrakech, beside one of the designer’s most enduring creations – the Majorelle Garden.
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