Man at the wheelPierre Bergé was one half of an extraordinary fashion duo
Best known as Yves Saint Lauren's business partner and former lover, Bergé was also an art collector, philanthropist and patron
PIERRE BERGÉ, Yves Saint Laurent’s one-time lover and lifelong business partner, was Diaghilev to YSL’s brilliant Stravinsky. A hard, demanding man, small of stature and in possession of a filthy temper, he was, to some, quite terrifying. Yet he was also a bold and successful businessman, a noted collector, a generous patron and philanthropist and a capable arts administrator. He had a profound belief in the importance of the creative impulse.
Bergé, who died on September 8th, could only have been French. With the intellect of André Malraux and the aesthetic refinement and financial nous of Jacob Rothschild (but not the inheritance), he was living proof of the synergy between culture and capitalism. In an era before supporting the arts meant fundraising above all (or “give, get or get off” as it is known among the board members of America’s biggest privately-funded arts institutions), Bergé was a social liberal and a political conservative, a mover in the circles of state-funded culture. He voted for Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the centre-right president, in the 1981 election, but went on to flourish under the winner and Mr Giscard’s successor, François Mitterrand, a socialist. Bergé loaned Danielle Mitterrand evening gowns for state occasions, and the president made him head of the Opéra National de Paris in 1988. Bergé oversaw the project to build a brand new opera house at the Place de la Bastille in Paris, in honour of the 200th anniversary of the French revolution.Get our daily newsletter
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Bergé and Saint Laurent met in Paris in 1958, after the designer had been taken on by Christian Dior. The two men couldn’t have been more different: Bergé was stocky where Saint Laurent was as thin as a reed. Bergé was energetic, opinionated, and liked good food, wine and conversation. Bergé had grown up in a family that did not care that he was gay; for Saint Laurent’s conservative father, a pied noir in Algeria, having a gay son was a source of deep embarrassment. The boy was teased at school and had a breakdown when he was conscripted into the French army at the height of the Algerian war of independence. Six years younger than Bergé, Saint Laurent was exceptionally shy and, although a brilliant designer, needed constant care and reassurance. In fashion lore, it was un coup de foudre: love at first sight.
Though their romantic relationship came to an end in 1976, when Saint Laurent retreated into drugs, alcohol and reclusiveness, the professional partnership between the two men continued. When Saint Laurent was well, they had lunch every day and spoke through the evening on the telephone. Together, they worked on three main projects.
The fashion house was the lynchpin; it needed both men to survive. The prudent financial backers who took charge of Christian Dior after the acclaimed couturier died in 1957 proved an obdurate combination with Dior’s older, conservative clients. The young Saint Laurent felt shackled. So in 1961 Bergé sold his flat on the Île Saint-Louis and the two men set up in business. Thirty years later, in the depths of recession, he asked Wasserstein Perella, a boutique investment bank, to find a buyer for Yves Saint Laurent. He set the asking price at $1bn, in cash.
In the meantime, the two had become important collectors. Decorating a magnificent duplex in Rue de Babylone (one of the most beautiful private apartments in Paris), a chateau in homage to Proust in Normandy, and Villa Oasis, their mansion retreat in Marrakech, gave Bergé and Saint Laurent the excuse to begin collecting art and antiques. In February 2009, eight months after Saint Laurent’s death, Bergé sold the lot: the three Mondrian paintings bought to celebrate the launch of Saint Laurent’s iconic shift dress, the Eileen Gray chair (a modernist icon) and the magnificent silver gilt ornaments made in northern Germany in the 17th century. The sale raised €373.9m ($448m), and Bergé divided the proceeds between various AIDS charities and a plan to build a museum in homage to Saint Laurent.
That project, which will be unveiled next month, turned out to be two museums. The first will be in Paris where the two opened their maison de couture and the second will be in Marrakech, their spiritual home. Between them the two museums will house 7,000 textiles, 8,000 sketches, 8,000 accessories and 15,000 documents: in all 38,000 objects that the two men collected obsessively. They always knew they would one day build a museum to the designer, the first of its kind in the world.
The museums will not have two 18th-century bronze heads—one of a rat and the other of a rabbit—which caused such a scandal at a Christie’s sale in 2009. The heads had been looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing and the Chinese government tried to have them withdrawn from the sale. On the day, though, the heads were bid for by a Chinese buyer ostentatiously waving a paddle. After the hammer went down on €15.9m ($19m), the bidder refused to pay.
Artworks that fail so publicly at auction are regarded as burned; no one will ever buy them in public. The two sculptures were returned to Bergé. He could have sold them off cheaply in a private transaction, or presented them to the Chinese government to burnish his reputation and gain influence there. Bergé played his hand his own way. After four years of negotiation, he sold them to François Pinault, another French businessman and collector, who wanted to present them to the Chinese himself. Bergé drove a fierce bargain, waiting for Mr Pinault to give in and pay the price he wanted. A hard, demanding man.
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