While Yves Saint Laurent was deeply occupied with the creation of his iconic garments, businessman Pierre Bergé was by his side, managing and realising the financial sustainability of the couture and RTW houses of Yves Saint Laurent Couture, and later, ready-to-wear. A lifelong partner, both in romance, business and friendship, he has dedicated his life to the legacy of one of the biggest fashion designers of the 20th century. He pushed the limits of womenswear with his appropriation of the male tuxedo, and radically merged art and fashion in many iconic pieces: broadly, he pioneered a postmodern strategy in fashion, one which dominates much of fashion design today. As a new exhibition at the Bowes Museum opens to celebrate this precocious talent, Mr. Bergé held an exclusive Q&A session to a selected few in the magnificent halls of this 17th century-style French Château on the North English countryside. Here, he shares some invaluable reflections on the development of the fashion industry, its changing strategies, thematic occupations, and the eternal question of art versus commerce.
On YSL and Gender
Could you pick out a piece from the exhibition that you really enjoyed seeing again?
Today, everybody in the world thinks about gender. Gender has become very important, for many reasons. In 1967, Saint Laurent created that famous tuxedo: it was the first time in fashion when you could talk about gender. Not only with the tuxedo, but also the safari suit. Much of St. Laurent’s pieces came from the man’s wardrobe to go to the women’s. He decided to transfer the power from the men’s suit on to the women’s.
“I decided to respect the creation before the business. For me, it was the doctrine. It was the most important decision.”
On business partnership and finding the perfect match
You’ve worked with Yves Saint Laurent for so many years, and you’ve carried his legacy for so many years. I wonder; what is the perfect relationship between a designer and a business partner, and when do you know that it’s a match for a lifetime?
When Yves was very sick in the hospital, after he had been fired by House of Christian Dior, I went to visit him. I said, ‘you know Yves, you need to understand that you’ve been fired.’ And he said, ‘there’s only one thing to do: to create a couture house, you and me [together]’ I said yes, immediately. But when I went out of the hospital, I thought that while it’s easy to say yes, it’s a lot of work. ‘What can I do? I’m not a businessman, absolutely not – I didn’t want to be a businessman in my youth. And I don’t understand fashion, not in this way.’ But so, I became a businessman in fashion!
I decided to go with him, to help him with his couture house, and to find money. It’s not very easy to find money – not today, and not then. But between Yves and I, we decided together that we would never talk about that. We never interfered with each other’s work, never. I never went to his studio and said ‘you know Yves, don’t do that, you need to know your place, etc.” – never. And if he came to me, I would never talk about the business – he knew nothing about it. I decided to respect the creation before the business. For me, it was the doctrine. It was the most important decision. First creation, then business. And we made a very good brand together, we were a good team – for fifty years.
On selling his collection
Was it difficult to sell your collection [of art and design] in 2009, when you sold it to Christie’s? Was it heartbreaking?
No, it wasn’t difficult. It was a decision we made together, him and I. It made absolutely no sense keeping the collection after his death, so we decided to sell, and we sold. In a way, it was sometimes hard. But for instance, when one of our armchairs designed by Eileen Gray sold for €23 million: It’s an enormous price, but it also means that we don’t have bad taste! It’s fantastic to sell these things, when we’ve worked so hard.
“Yves was a very shy person. You should be careful with shy people: a good advice, shy people are always the tougher people.”
On Yves Saint Laurent, the person
What sort of person was Yves Saint Laurent, and what did he mean to you?
Ah… How much time do you have? We can spend the night talking! It’s absolutely impossible to explain. Your question is very interesting, but you understand that it’s difficult to answer. You have to understand that Yves was a very shy person. You should be careful with shy people: a good advice, shy people are always the tougher people. He was a shy person, and very, very nice. He loved the people working for him in his couture house. They were his family – that’s what he called them. And it’s true. He was a fascinating man. Very, very bright. And as you can see, very talented.
On fashion today
Yves designed so many costumes for the ballet, and you were at the Paris Opera for so long. Do you think theatricality is something fashion lacks today, or something that manifests itself differently today?
When Yves and I started, the one word we never heard, which was nothing for us, was marketing. Today, the principal word is marketing. We never used marketing. For Yves then, and for me today, it is difficult — not to understand, but to accept what fashion is today. It’s not our language; it’s not our world. Maybe it can be fantastic, and I’m sure there are very talented people, but … I don’t speak that language.
Words by Jeppe Ugelvig