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'In time people will tell one another, "You really should know about these two guys, who lived in the 20th century in Paris”.’ This was Pierre Bergé in his later years, reflecting on his prolonged partnership with Yves Saint Laurent. Was he referring to their story as erstwhile lovers? Was he alluding to the global fashion brand the couple created, driven by Bergé’s crusading zeal and business acumen. Arguably, it was also a reference to how Paris, Europe, society changed during their lives, and the active role figures like themselves played in bringing about that change. The couple’s presence was felt beyond the confines of their fashion empire. Bergé was notable as a political campaigner and a patron of the arts. The couple’s art collection was famously auctioned for almost €400 million in 2009. The most expensive private collection ever to go under the hammer, according to Christie’s. The money was donated to AIDS research, and the charitable foundation now responsible for the two museums dedicated to the work of Yves Saint Laurent that opened this month. A move the couple had planned for over half a century. Almost as long as they were together.
Recalling their relationship in his book ‘Letters To Yves’, Bergé writes: 'I remember your first collection under your name and the tears at the end. Then the years passed. Oh, how they passed quickly. The divorce was inevitable but the love never stopped’. Bergé said that for decades he woke thinking of Yves Saint Laurent. After his partner died in 2008, his thoughts turned to the legacy of the designer. Or rather the couple’s dual legacy. When Bergé himself died last month, French President Emmanuel Macron said : 'With Pierre Bergé, a whole portion of our literary and artistic legacy is disappearing. It will be up to his friends and those who were guided by him to keep that memory alive and to help the French understand the importance of what he did for French culture and to perpetuate his work’.
The story of the Paris in which the couple met in the 1950s was a tale of two cities, maybe three, four or more. In the fizzy world of fashion, following the untimely death of Christian Dior, the 21-year old Yves Saint Laurent was hurled into the spotlight as head designer at the couture house. The day his first collection was shown was the day he met Pierre Bergé, who belonged to another Paris. He had a cameo in the scene described in Sarah Bakewell’s 'At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails’, published last year. That high season of existentialism on the city’s left bank, within the eateries and clubs along the Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The philosophy was partly a reaction to the war and the occupation of France. It created the young, radical prototype that peaked during the student uprisings the following decade, and eventually morphed into the caricatured progressives we're saddled with today. Beyond the obligatory black clothes and jazz soundtrack there was a serious attempt to address moral issues and make a commitment to art, literature and politics. Bakewell refers to it as a philosophy that goes ‘straight to life’. Rebellion as an act of authenticity. The young Pierre Bergé was on the periphery of the ever decreasing circles that surrounded the middle-aged magus of the movement, Jean-Paul Sartre. He shared a cell with Albert Camus following his arrest at a political demo. He was the lover of the painter Bernard Buffet - a celebrated enfant triste, along with the novelist Françoise Sagan and Yves Saint Laurent. Bergé’s passion for books, the attachment to art, culture and politics, was forged in this era. In hindsight, he was perhaps less of a traditional radical and more a radical traditionalist. Someone who believes - I’m surmising, wildly - in throwing out the bath water but keeping the baby. ‘In life I am a revolutionary’, he once said, ‘but in art I have a respect for the rules of conservation’.
Artists transfixed him. Something that brings to mind what the poet Stephen Spender wrote of Christopher Isherwood: ‘He was on the side of forces which make a work of art, even more than he was interested in art itself’. Bergé's ambition was to be near the ‘burning fires of creation’. Similarly he was more taken with the concept of revolutionaries than the ideology they propagated. He was never a Marxist. He saw himself as a pragmatic figure on the left. Yet, paradoxically, he harboured hopes of a socialist utopia materialising in the future. The fallback position of those on the left that have seen so many of their illusions shattered in the present. Bergé lamented the lack of vision, ideals and convictions of the rising generation of so-called radicals. The inheritors of the mantle of the men and women in black he once sat among and debated with, to a backdrop of bebop. What was it that so irritated him about the young, modern 'progressives'? The hackneyed language? The zealous attachment to the populist hobbies of identity politics and minority issues? Or was it simply the absence of finesse?
Bergé himself recaptured some of that youthful vigour at the beginning of the 1980s, when the socialists were returned to government after an absence of 23 years, led by François Mitterrand. He campaigned heartily for the president during the elections of his fourteen-year tenure, and was justly rewarded by becoming, controversially, the director of the Paris opera house. 'I try to be true to the teenager I was when the world changed’, Bergé said. ‘I try to keep faith with the discovery of life and the things I was doing, with that first experience of politics, literature, and music...If I look back over my shoulder, I would like the teenager I was to recognise me and shake me by the hand. Perhaps he’d refuse. Perhaps he’d think I’ve left too many things by the roadside’. Even at that juncture the road had been a long one. Pierre Bergé emerged from the shadow of his partner just as Saint Laurent was spiralling out of control on a cocktail of sex, drink and drugs and disappearing into the shadows. This was the moment Bergé blossomed into a significant cultural and political voice in the French capital. (Ultimately, the owner of theatres, magazines, that imperious collection of art, a library of rare books and co-owner of Le Monde.) This was the figure that prompted the plaudits and eulogies from esteemed dignitaries in the wake of his death. François Hollande described him as ‘an exceptional man of conviction who defended the idea of equal rights for all’.
On reading the obituaries, I was reminded that the Paris of the 1950s was the one that preoccupied Malcolm Mclaren. It’s evident in the ‘Paris’ album from 1994 with its references to Miles Davis, Juliet Greco and even Saint Laurent himself. (‘I wore black on Saint-Germain-des-Prés /Feelings in the air they love today’). He dedicated a documentary to the city, compiled of archive French commercials, labelling it ’the capital of the XXIst century’. (The title was a steal from Walter Benjamin, writing in the 19th century). Then there was the musical about Christian Dior that Mclaren spent years threatening to make that never came to fruition. Interviewed shortly before he died in 2010, he said: 'I saw a story that really could define music and fashion and how it all happened after the war and where it all went. I could do that, and trap it, inside this house of Christian Dior, from its birth in ’47 to Dior’s death in ’57.’ The story of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in that period, and during the decades that followed is actually a better guage of the changes that occurred - picking up from when Saint Laurent left Dior. Established in 1961, the house of Saint Laurent tapped into the shifting cultural and social scene in a manner that no previous couture house had. Saint Laurent himself was someone who, to use an Auden line, wore his talent like a uniform. Some suggested his greatest talent was his understanding of the zeitgeist. Bergé declared that the designer ' transcended the merely aesthetic in fashion and penetrated social territory. He opened up fashion with an extraordinary youthfulness'.
Saint Laurent created fashion that existed on the catwalks because it existed in life, he said. This is perhaps where fashion began to chime with Bergé’s politics. When it lost its elitism, and began to be more widely available to the moderately wealthy consumer. It's no coincidence that Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear line was a reference to the Paris that radicalised the young Pierre Bergé: Rive Gauche. The fantasy was becoming more democratic. This was smack, bang in the middle of the 1960s, when London started to swing. Saint Laurent's sensuously entwined intitials became synonymous with that period. The decade itself punctuated by key moments identified with iconic looks: the Mondrian-print shift dress, the safari dress, the androgynous 'Le Tuxedo' that kicked off the gender fluid fashion season of the early 1970s. While somewhere in there a move that further boosted his status, his association with Paris and its fashion - the outfits for Catherine Deneuve in ‘Belle De Jour’. By 1976, what was perhaps a final flourish - the ‘Ballet Russe’ collection. That same year, London, and Europe and beyond, was warming to a boom in tribal street wear. A move in which Malcolm Mclaren played no small part. Saint Laurent was no longer the figure taking fashion into social territory by way of an extraordinary youthfulness.
Both Bergé and Saint Laurent loathed the ivory tower approach to fashion. 'While Balenciaga, Dior, and Schiaparelli were great couturiers’, Bergé said, 'they were locked into a couture of social caste, never straying outside of their aesthetic pantheon. The only two who went outside that framework to enter more social territory were Chanel first, and then Yves Saint Laurent’. The couple celebrated trends that spoke to the times and transformed them, rather than the ‘fascist fashions’ imposed from above. Bergé's greatest extravagance he said, was in not liking money: 'Money corrupts, and makes people do all sorts of things. Nothing has more rotten effects than money’. It was as though money was never so vulgar as when it was in the hands of those that had the wealth but not the taste. This was his problem with haute couture. On numerous occasions over the years he announced its death. It had been created for a lifestyle that had become obsolete: 'It isn’t a few Russian tarts buying dresses at a handful of Parisian couture houses or what-have-you that will wring the anachronism’s neck’. It was over and would not be revived by ‘a handful of houses living off the fat of their fragrances’.
If Bergé's politics had him look to a utopia somewhere in the future, Saint Laurent lamented one that had passed. In one of the numerous documentaries made about his life he sits watching film of himself as a child, when he was cocooned within his family in French Algiers. He was a nervy, bullied boy who fantasied about being a couturier. Watching the footage, a morose middle-aged man, he quotes Proust: ‘The only true paradise is paradise lost’. Bergé pointed out to the press with a knowing regularity that ‘Yves was born with a nervous breakdown’. His role was to be intermediary between the designer and the rest of the world, leaving him alone with his uniform of talent. (Despite Saint Laurent’s fragile disposition, he created a signature style for women that was said to make them empowered and statuesque.) Saint Laurent said of his partner: 'His strength meant I could rest on him when I was out of breath’. In his efforts to be close to those burning fires of creation, Bergé was attracted to tortured artists. Whether it was Bernard Buffet, who later committed suicide, or Yves Saint Laurent, who looked as though he wanted to. 'Maybe they find stability in me’, he said. ' I love people that have doubts and are unafraid of uncertainties. I like fragile people. It’s inevitable that artists are disturbed by the idea of creation’. In this instance the act of creation was driven by obsession: ‘Artists are obsessives who constantly circle their obsession, endlessly trying to go deeper into it’. Saint Laurent was obsessed with his work, his art. Bergé was obssessed with the artist, and building a legacy. A passion that he also applied to business, politics and art. Perhaps what he said of his partner was as true of himself: 'He gave everything to his métier, like a saint gives everything to God.'
Saint Laurent's obsession almost destroyed him. Bianca Jagger once asked him in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine what he would do if he weren’t a fashion designer. ‘Live’, he said. In his diaries Warhol commented that Saint Laurent ‘was such a genius that he just can’t take it, he has to take a million pills'. Yet the designer claimed that when life was bad the results of the work were often better. Bergé's obsession with his subject became a springboard for other things. Along with the world class art collection, the couple were patrons of music, literature and architecture. Fashion had never truly interested Bergé. It was a futile past time to keep wealthy women amused. He certainly never saw it as an art form. In later years he dismissed modern designers that presented collections as though they were art installations. Just as he was once dismissive of creatives that predicted the future. 'When I was young, they used to say that there were two couturiers who were working for the year 2000, Courrèges and Cardin’, he said. 'The year 2000 has come and gone, and if you ever see anyone anywhere in the world dressed in Courrèges or Cardin, text me! Fashion isn’t a laboratory, it’s not supposed to caricature the future. It’s the opposite – an excessively fragile, ephemeral link between the past and the future’. And yet the utopian socialism he set his hopes on was as much a caricature. Clinging to the notion of this in the present made him appear something of anachronism. Particularly in the light of his vast wealth and materialism. He was dismissed by Jacques Chirac as the 'foremost representative of the Caviar Left’.
In keeping with young activists of the hashtag generation, Bergé committed himself to some of the common, contemporary causes. He was to the fore of the campaign for homosexual marriage. (Although the romantic relationship with Saint Laurent ended years before his death, the couple were joined in a civil ceremony in the designer’s final days.) Charlie Hebdo and suicide bombings were more an inconvenience than a tragedy to the younger generation of ‘radicals’ he marched alongside. Such events forced them to have opinions on race, multiculturalism and faith they were ill-prepared to formulate. Bergé broke with the standard etiquette on race the year of the attack in Nice, and the banning of the burkini on French beaches. With his customary passion, invective and directness he railed against the Islamic veil. Taking on those designers - Dolce & Gabbana among them - that introduced it to the catwalk.
'Creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion’, he railed. 'Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life.’
Repeatedly, when making the argument that fashion was not art, Bergé opined: ‘A dress is made to be worn, not to go straight into a museum’. And yet he regarded certain designers as artists - Dior and Chanel among them. Balenciaga he compared with Georges Braque. While Yves St Laurent was the greatest artist of all in this rarefied world, with an eye for colour to match that of Matisse. Bergé was not alone in this belief. Others claimed the designer was an ‘exceptional artist’ because of the movement and fluidity within his sketches. Saint Laurent himself harboured many regrets - he wished he'd invented jeans - but held onto the hope that he would be remembered as an artist. Now the body of work is preserved in the two museums that were inaugurated just weeks after the death of Pierre Bergé: one in Marrakech and the other on 5 Avenue Marceau, Paris. The latter housed Saint Laurent’s atelier. The epicentre of the couple's lives for more than half a century. The Museé Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech is designed by the French firm of architects behind the less elaborate Chiltern Firehouse, in the less exotic Marylebone. Marrakech was the other city the couple considered to be home. Here the ashes of the designer, and now those of Pierre Bergé, are scattered in the Jardin Majorelle on the Rue Yves Saint Laurent. The collection consists of 5,000 items of clothing, 15,000 haute couture accessories and tens of thousands of sketches. Unusually the couple kept a copy of everything. Collected from 1963, the year that Edmonde Charles-Roux put Yves Saint Laurent on the cover of Vogue. One of the men said - I’m not sure which, and maybe it doesn’t matter - the life of a dress was the life of the couture house itself, ‘which is the whole of my life’.
Initially, the museums were to house the designs, along with the art works the couple had collected. Instead the art was sold to finance the museums. The couple's majestic apartment on Rue de Babylone was dismantled and reassembled in the hall at the Grand Palais. Bergé later auctioned his personal collection of rare books. He was a bibliophile. Books were the things Bergé claimed to truly love. He himself wrote several. One of them is entitled ‘Les Jours S’en Vont, Je Demeure'. Time goes on, I remain. It’s a quote from Apollinaire that brings to mind Proust. Time lost and time regained. It brings to mind Saint Laurent quoting Proust, lamenting the loss of his childhood: 'The only true paradise is paradise lost’. Perhaps this is what the museums now represent. A paradise lost. A remembrance of things past. The story of two men that lived in Paris in the twentieth century. 'I don’t believe in God. I only believe in human beings, in memory’, Pierre Bergé once said. 'That’s all. The memory will persist’.