PARIS — No stranger to controversy, Pierre Bergé on Wednesday waded into the sensitive territory of religion, saying he was “scandalized” by fashion brands and designers catering to the Muslim market with creations like headscarves and burqinis.
The former business partner of couturier Yves Saint Laurent, whose interests include media and philanthropy, said it was “inadmissible” that brands like Marks & Spencer, Uniqlo and Dolce & Gabbana are producing clothing and accessories specifically tailored to Muslim customers.
“I am scandalized. Having worked with Yves Saint Laurent for close to 40 years, I have always believed that a fashion designer is there to make women beautiful and grant them freedom, and not to side with this compulsory dictatorship, this abominable way of hiding women,” Bergé told Europe 1 radio on Wednesday.
“It’s not because women are forced to dress that way by their husbands, their families or their entourage that you should go in that direction,” he added. “On the contrary, you should teach them to undress, to revolt, to live like the women of today do across in the world.”
Marks & Spencer recently launched a full-body swimsuit, or burqini, while Uniqlo has introduced a capsule collection by U.K.-born designer Hana Tajima that includes traditional wear like hijabs and a kebaya. Meanwhile, Dolce & Gabbana recently unveiled a collection of hijabs and abayas.
“It’s to make dough and nothing else. It’s intolerable,” Bergé said.
Asked what he would say to the designers concerned, Bergé said: “I wouldn’t say anything because they won’t listen to me, and I don’t want to talk to them anyway. I don’t want to have a discussion with those people, but if I were to say anything to them, I would say: ‘Give up the dough. Have convictions. Defend your convictions.’”
Asked to react to accusations that his comments are Islamophobic, Bergé said: “I live in Morocco most of the time, I am really not Islamophobic.” The Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent is currently hosting an exhibition by Moroccan artist Noureddine Amir, and Bergé plans to open a Saint Laurent museum in Marrakech.
Bergé has frequently stoked controversy with comments on subjects including charity fund-raising and the editorial line of Le Monde newspaper, in which he holds a stake. He has also engaged in verbal spats with designers like Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford.
This time around, he received the backing of Laurence Rossignol, France’s minister for families, children and women’s rights.
In an interview with RMC television on Wednesday, she said brands who invest in the “lucrative” market for Islamic clothing destined toward European consumers were turning their backs on their social responsibility.
“It can’t be considered banal or insignificant that these big brands are entering this market and ultimately forcing Muslim women to wear this. This puts pressure on them, so it’s irresponsible on the part of the brands,” she said.
Rossignol said her intention was to protect Muslim women in France from the pressure of ultraconservative movements, but she shocked many viewers by comparing women who voluntarily wear headscarves to African-Americans who supported slavery in the 19th century, triggering a heated debate on Twitter.
“If we say that designers endanger the health of young women by showing thin women with anorexic models, then we can just as well say that the same designers, with these Islamic collections, are showing an image of women that is dangerous for the freedom and rights of Muslim women in France,” she added.
France banned face-covering headgear in public places — including burqas — in 2010.