PARIS — Pierre Bergé, the partner of Yves Saint Laurent and a powerhouse figure in French culture and politics, has died at the age of 86 after a long illness.
Bergé passed away in his sleep in the early hours of Friday at home in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent said in a statement.
Bergé’s death comes just weeks before the inauguration of two Yves Saint Laurent museums in Paris and Marrakech, which the entrepreneur considered the culmination of a life’s work promoting the talent of the couturier whose existence was intertwined with his own.
At a press conference in June unveiling the museums, Bergé appeared in a wheelchair looking weakened after a stay in hospital. The entrepreneur had been public about his struggle with muscular dystrophy.
Bergé is survived by his longtime partner, American landscape gardener Madison Cox, who is vice president of both the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent and the Fondation Jardin Majorelle in Morocco. The two got married in a private ceremony in Paris on March 31.
Friends and officials lamented the loss of one of the industry’s greatest figures.
“He was my family, he was a genius, I called him Superman! I am desperate,” said Saint Laurent’s longtime muse Betty Catroux, who frequently attended the brand’s shows in recent years alongside Bergé.
French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to Bergé’s tireless support for the arts.
“With Pierre Bergé, a whole portion of our literary and artistic legacy is disappearing,” he said. “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.”
Macron also nodded to Bergé’s penchant for invective, which saw him engage in heated public discussions on issues including gay marriage and the Islamic veil, as well as entering into public feuds with personalities including Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford.
“He spared no opponent in any of his battles. His sharp tongue, which some people objected to, was the flip side of a profound and total commitment,” he said.
François-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive officer of Kering, which owns the Yves Saint Laurent brand, spoke of his “deep respect” for its founder.
“This man who has just left us was a great cultural figure, and a man with convictions he fought tirelessly to uphold. Pierre Bergé was at the same time a visionary precursor, a great patron, a creative and passionate businessman and a defender of noble and universal causes,” Pinault said in a statement.
Anthony Vaccarello, who took over as creative director of Saint Laurent in 2016, said Bergé had welcomed him “with kindness” from the first day.
“His advice and his support have always guided me. I am infinitely sad that he will not be able to attend the opening of the two museums in Paris and Marrakech that he cared about so much,” he said.
Francesca Bellettini, president and ceo of Yves Saint Laurent, described Bergé as being “always ahead of his time,” saying creativity was at the heart of the house.
“Creativity is fundamental and believing in it is the key to success. Mr. Pierre Bergé was an inspiration for me. He trusted his instincts. He fought for what he believed in. He stayed true to himself being the founder and supporter of incredible cultural and educational activities.
“This extraordinary heritage is the DNA of the maison and we are honored and thankful to have the chance to bring his values and his spirit into the future,” Bellettini said.
Bernard Arnault, chairman and ceo of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, said he was “deeply saddened” by Bergé’s death.
“He combined immense culture and sophisticated taste with a great talent as an entrepreneur. At the head of the fashion house he founded and managed, and the cultural institutions he presided, he contributed considerably to France’s influence worldwide,” he said.
The house of Chanel — where Lagerfeld has been creative director since 1983 — released a sober homage.
“Chanel pays tribute to the memory of Pierre Bergé, a key figure in the world of fashion, arts and culture, a person of character and a philanthropist, who marked our era through his dedication to one of the world’s great couture houses alongside Yves Saint Laurent,” it said.
Sidney Toledano, chairman and ceo of Christian Dior Couture, called Bergé a “visionary” entrepreneur.
“He was a reference for every fashion manager, in particular with respect to his relationship with designers. The duo he formed with Yves Saint Laurent was exemplary,” said Toledano, who worked alongside Bergé as an administrator of the Institut Français de la Mode, the higher education institution founded by Bergé in 1986.
“I appreciated his energy, the courage of his opinions and his vision,” he said.
Bergé founded the Yves Saint Laurent couture house with the designer in 1961 and ran it until 2002. A businessman, collector and patron of the arts, he held many positions of influence: co-owner of French newspaper Le Monde, founder of AIDS charity Sidaction and former president of the Paris Opera.
Bergé and Saint Laurent capitalized on the designer’s creative genius as well as Bergé’s business know-how to form one of the most iconic couples in fashion history and build the Yves Saint Laurent name into a fashion powerhouse.
While Saint Laurent pushed fashion forward with his “Le Smoking” tuxedos for women and his creation of ready-to-wear, Bergé transformed the young designer’s talent into a powerful global business.
“I had an immediate affinity with Bergé,” Saint Laurent said. “From the beginning, he has been someone who understands me — a companion. And he’s always been very strong, which was something absent from my life then.”
In Bergé, Saint Laurent found the support and stability he needed to weather the unpredictable demands of fashion; through the artist’s fragile disposition, Bergé saw Saint Laurent’s creative potential. The duo had met through mutual friend Christian Dior, and they formed a partnership that lasted over 50 years.
Bergé said of Saint Laurent that he was “the only other couturier of the last century who transcended the merely aesthetic in fashion and penetrated social territory. He opened up fashion with an extraordinary youthfulness.”
Bergé had an eye for artistic talent, evident from his relationship with Saint Laurent and also with artist Bernard Buffet. A list of his close circle included influential artists, writers and politicians of the era: Jean Cocteau, Andy Warhol, François Mitterrand, Marie-Laure de Noailles and Dior, to name a few.
“I don’t know if it’s me who is attracted to tortured artists, or the tortured artists that are attracted to me. Maybe they find stability in me. In any case, I love people who have doubts and are unafraid of uncertainties. I like fragile people. It’s inevitable that artists are disturbed by the idea of creation,” he said.
Bergé was born on l’Île d’Oléron, a small southern French island, on Nov. 14, 1930, and aspired to be a painter or writer. He moved to Paris at the age of 18 and met Buffet. Bergé was Buffet’s romantic partner and professional manager when he first met Saint Laurent at a dinner party hosted by Dior.
Shortly afterward, Saint Laurent took over as head designer of the house following Dior’s untimely death in 1957.
He began his career with startling and provocative collections before finally taking a leave of absence from Dior to serve in the French army; he was admitted to an army hospital days after his arrival because of a nervous breakdown, the first of many that would afflict him throughout his life.
Along with Saint Laurent’s mother, Bergé visited the young designer every day. The two had become close before Saint Laurent had left for the army, and their fondness for each other soon grew into a relationship.
During Saint Laurent’s absence the Dior house became enamored with their replacement head designer, Marc Bohan, whose pretty, pleasing styles took the label in a direction far different from Saint Laurent’s dramatic, controversial collections. When Saint Laurent returned to Paris, he found himself out of a job.
Saint Laurent and Bergé decided to start their own label under Saint Laurent’s name, and Bergé convinced Atlanta self-made millionaire J. Mack Robinson to back them. In September 1961, the two opened their tiny two-room office on Rue la Boétie.
YSL launched its first collection on Jan. 26, 1962, to rave reviews and an audience so frenzied that Saint Laurent hid in a closet from the crowd; Bergé stood on a chair and directed the mob toward the exit.
Early critics lauded Saint Laurent for resurrecting couture, an industry that was suffering from both technological advances making copying easier and couturiers unable to adapt to changing tastes. Bergé’s business savvy propelled the small brand into one of the most influential fashion houses of the 20th century.
Clients included the Duchess of Windsor, Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline de Ribes, Catherine Deneuve, Leslie Caron, Lauren Bacall and Paloma Picasso, as well as Catroux and fellow Saint Laurent muse Loulou de la Falaise.
With YSL Rive Gauche, Saint Laurent introduced “prêt-à-porter” or rtw to the world. After the first store was launched at 21 Rue de Tournon in Paris, more than 160 Rive Gauche stores opened around the world and turned the business global.
Alongside great successes such as Saint Laurent’s Mondrian dress, the safari jacket, the Ballets Russes collection, and many other iconic looks, the brand launched highly profitable fragrances including Opium and Paris.
The couple split romantically in 1976, but Bergé and Saint Laurent continued to remain business partners and friends.
Saint Laurent died of brain cancer on June 1, 2008. Bergé presided over a memorial service whose grandeur was usually reserved for royalty, with guests including then-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
When asked by Interview Magazine what motivates him to wake up each morning, Bergé replied: “I don’t know exactly. There’s nothing that really motivates me anymore and demands that I get up in the morning. In the past it was Yves Saint Laurent.”
Shortly afterward, Bergé decided to auction off the treasure trove of priceless art and furniture collected by the couple. Their spectacular apartment at 55 Rue de Babylone was dismantled and reassembled at the Grand Palais, the enormous glass-covered hall used for the World Exposition in Paris.
For the public exhibit before the auction in February 2009, lines snaked around the venue for days as members of the public vied for a glimpse of the couple’s magnificent selection of Art Deco furniture, priceless paintings and ancient Chinese statues. The auction raised 374 million euros, making it the most expensive private collection ever to go under the hammer, according to Christie’s.
Bergé’s influence was felt in every sphere of French public life.
He bought and ran the Théâtre de l’Athénée-Louis-Jouvet in Paris from 1977 to 1982. In 1988, Mitterrand appointed him to head the French National Opera; he stayed until 1994, remaining honorary president. In 1993, Bergé was also appointed to be a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.
Among his other interests are the Pierre Bergé and Associés auction house, which has offices in Paris and Brussels, and Bergé also sat on various boards of directors of cultural organizations.
Globe, the magazine he founded in 1988, was credited with helping Mitterrand win a second term in office. Bergé was a strong supporter for Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal during the 2007 French presidential elections and threw his weight behind Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 race.
Bergé cofounded French weekly Courrier International in 1990 and gay magazine Têtu in 1995, and in 2010 became a majority shareholder in Groupe Le Monde alongside Xavier Niel and Matthieu Pigasse.
The executor of Cocteau’s estate, Bergé collected rare books and wrote several himself, including the 2010 tome “Letters to Yves,” an intimate recollection of their love affair.
In recent years, his main passion was protecting Saint Laurent’s heritage via the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.
“Pierre Bergé was a young man who harbored great ambitions. He wasn’t driven by money. His only ambition was to burn near the fire of creation,” he wrote of himself in his book “Les jours s’en vont, je demeure” (“Time goes on, I remain” in English).