PARIS — Pierre and Yves.
The names of Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent are forever linked in fashion history, two men who were business partners and, for a time, lovers, and along the way defined not only the model for the yin and yang relationship of a creative balanced by a strong executive, but a 20th-century love affair.
Bergé, who used his partnership with Saint Laurent to become a powerhouse figure not just in fashion but in French culture and politics, died in the early hours of Friday at home in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent said in a statement. He was 86.
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 the hospital. The entrepreneur had been public about his struggle with muscular dystrophy.
Describing his at-times tempestuous but unbreakable relationship with Saint Laurent, Bergé told WWD in 2010: “The two of us formed a puzzle and we were made of pieces that fit together very precisely. The money, the business, the licenses, the store openings, all of that would not have been possible without me. But you can’t operate the world’s biggest and most beautiful airplane if you don’t have fuel and a pilot who can fly that plane. And the only pilot who knew how to fly that plane was Yves Saint Laurent.”
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 — a temperamental, imperious man with a biting tongue who both drove and relentlessly protected Saint Laurent and the legend the two men created.
“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 of 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 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.
“I adored every minute of work with Mr. Bergé,” remembered Alber Elbaz, the first designer chosen to succeed Saint Laurent after he retired in 2002. “As we all know, he was known to be a toughie, but somehow I didn’t see this side, I saw the protective side of him because he was really protecting the people that were working with him. I mean, the loyalty was above and beyond, I don’t think that there was one person that was needed that Mr. Bergé was not there for.”
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.”
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 Karl 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.
Giorgio Armani said, “I met Pierre Bergé many years ago and admired his sharp mind and scintillating conversation. He was a staunch supporter of French fashion, a magnificent entrepreneur and a man of culture. He swam against the tide with his latest venture, demonstrating his passion for traditional information as published by newspapers and magazines. He continued to work unremittingly, with great consistency, enthusiasm and a sense of innovation.”
Carlo Capasa, president of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, said, “We lost a person without whom fashion history would have been different. All of us owe something to him and he will always hold a special place in our hearts.”
Diane von Furstenberg said, “Pierre Bergé was a huge pillar and a voice in the world of fashion, and with him gone, a whole world goes. In a few weeks the YSL Museum will open in Marrakech. Pierre has put all his energy and love in that museum to preserve Yves’ heritage….Although he will not be at the opening, I am SO glad he was able to see it to the end.”
Ira Neimark, who was ceo of Bergdorf Goodman from the Seventies to the early Nineties, said, “Pierre was very astute and generous with his time.”
Recalling how important it was for Bergdorf’s to carry YSL, Neimark said, “When we were trying to elevate Bergdorf Goodman, Bergé was really helpful. It did take us two years to get YSL couture, even John Fairchild [WWD’s legendary publisher and close friend of Saint Laurent’s] helped us, but when we finally got YSL, and Armani and Fendi, we were really off and running.”
Anna Wintour, artistic director of Condé Nast and editor in chief of Vogue, said, “I had nothing but respect and admiration for Pierre Bergé’s prescient vision of how to build and sustain a house, and to nurture and protect its brilliant but fragile creator in the process. But Bergé’s achievements bounded well beyond the worlds of fashion and style, powerful as he was in that domain. The range and intensity of his commitments to his chosen political, social and philanthropic causes set the bar for engagement.
“His support ranged from many aspects of the wide cultural world, to emerging designers, and to medical research, particularly in the vital area of HIV AIDS research, which he championed from the first terrible days of the pandemic — with his indomitable voice, his lobbying skills and his money. In so many of these areas he led the charge, proving an inspiring and profoundly influential force that stands as his powerful and important legacy,” said Wintour.
Susan Gutfreund said of Bergé: “Such a quick wit and always so curious. We went every year for years to Amsterdam and visits to museums and gardens became magical with his knowledge! Most of all I loved him as a loyal friend and every Christmas he remembered me with a thoughtful gift.”
“Pierre was an extraordinary man of many dimensions, his heart was big and generous,” said Marisa Berenson. “He lived with passion for the ones he loved and in everything he did. He embraced life and created it with great panache. His vision was limitless. He followed his dreams and materialized them with courage, determination and strength. He has left an indelible mark on our lives and in the world in many different and fascinating ways. He will be greatly missed and we are grateful for the treasures he has left behind.”
Christophe Girard, a former luxury executive and now mayor of the fourth arrondissement in Paris, recalled: “He did not put up with anything less than perfection. Every detail had its importance — whether it was handwriting, the seating of a show, a letter, a sentence or a piece of clothing. He really taught me to be demanding.
“My best memory is the lunch with Diana Vreeland to seal the agreement to stage the first Yves Saint Laurent retrospective in December 1983 at the Met. These were the preliminary talks, in 1982, and I’ll never forget it. The way he spoke, the way he would get excited, the way he wheedled, the way he held his ground. He would rather walk away empty-handed than with a bad deal. So he taught me that, too: it’s better to skip the party than to be badly seated or badly treated.
“I’ve always thought of Bergé as being different from other bosses, because even though he was a businessman, even though he ran an empire, he was above all an esthete. Money was a means to an end — a means to buy beautiful paintings, a means to travel, a means to defend causes.
“What I find cruel and unfair, what hurts the most, is that he won’t be there to inaugurate the two museums that were so important to him.”
Manolo Blank said, “He was one of the most generous people that I have met in my life simply because every time I came to Paris he was very welcoming. Maybe it was because I was friends with Palomo [Picasso] but it was an incredible time in Paris. It was when I was young and not even thinking about shoes. We went to Saint Laurent’s private couture house in the Seventies for a fashion show. There was no room at all in the huge marble room because it was full of ladies.”
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.
Line Renaud, the French actress who is vice president of Sidaction, said: “Pierre was my brother-in-arms. That meeting changed the course of my life. How many times have I been bowled over by his erudition, his sharp observations, his sophistication! He was a vivacious, instinctive man who always had his finger on the zeitgeist.”
Bergé, who presided over an annual Sidaction fund-raiser at the close of Paris Couture Week in January, was famous for demanding complete silence during his speeches — no mean feat when faced with a roomful of designers and executives raring to let off steam at the end of another season.
“To keep going without Pierre is terribly painful, but the greatest tribute we can pay him today is to keep up our fight against AIDS,” Renaud said.
Bergé and Saint Laurent capitalized on the designer’s creative genius as well as Bergé’s business acumen to build the YSL brand 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 global business via their own stores and licensing deals.
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 met through mutual friend Christian Dior, and they formed a partnership that lasted more than 50 years.
“I had an immediate affinity with Bergé,” said Saint Laurent. “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.”
Bergé said of Saint Laurent that he “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 that 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 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 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 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 romantic 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.
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 and Bergé introduced “prêt-à-porter,” or ready-to-wear, 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.
Chantal Roos, who worked with Saint Laurent, beginning in 1976, on the creation of Opium and his other fragrances and beauty products, recalled how the owner of the business, the E.R. Squibb pharmaceutical company, vetoed the name of the controversial scent, apparently fearful of adverse publicity. “Pierre Bergé made it very clear that he would do a press conference, he would inform everybody — and spread the name all over the world,” she recalled. Faced with Bergé’s ultimatum, Squibb backed down and agreed to let the name go forward.”
She acknowledged, however, that he could be explosive. “He was passionate; he could go on both extremes,” she said. “It was better not to be under his screaming.”
Bergé cast such a shadow that he made an indelible impression across industries. Fans included Leonard A. Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.
“He was a remarkable man, being able to deal both in the design and commercial world of Yves Saint Laurent, as well as heading up the Paris Opera during a very challenging period,” Lauder noted. “Yes, he was a man for all seasons and certainly will be missed.”
Terry de Gunzburg, who later founded By Terry, remembers the day in 1985 that Bergé appointed her creative director of Saint Laurent’s beauty company “and you know why?”, she asked, “because I had no business background — and he liked that.” She described working with Saint Laurent as “a wonderful relationship, not a business relationship, very emotional, very supportive. We were like a close family.”
As for Bergé’s impact on the business, she said his attitude was “the sky is the limit.” Bergé was a master of media communication. “He invented the concept of free advertising with the launching and creating new ideas of fashion.”
But de Gunzburg said she had questioned his image as a greatbusinessman. “He wasn’t a businessman if you compare him to Bernard Arnault, for example. He was more concept, intuition, communication,” she continued. “He was a genius in marketing — intuitive marketing. He had a very deep feeling of what was appropriate,” de Gunzburg said.
In 1991, YSL became the first couture house to be quoted on the Paris Stock Exchange. During that time, Bergé had to fend off rumors about Saint Laurent’s weak physical state. “Everybody knows that [Saint Laurent] has psychological problems,” said Bergé, “that he takes too many tranquilizers which make him seem a little confused, but I declare on my honor that he doesn’t have cancer, that he doesn’t have AIDS — he hasn’t even tested positive.”
Bergé sold YSL to French pharmaceutical company Sanofi two years later for $650 million in shares; primarily interested in the YSL fragrances, Sanofi gave Bergé and Saint Laurent control over the brand’s fashion direction until 2001. French media speculated that Bergé’s close friendship with then-President Mitterrand helped land the deal with Sanofi.
In 1999, Bergé and Saint Laurent sold their RTW line to the Gucci Group for $1 billion after failing to find a good successor and after experiencing financial troubles. Alber Elbaz succeeded Saint Laurent in RTW creative direction but stayed for only three seasons before being replaced by Gucci Group’s Tom Ford. Bergé and Saint Laurent disliked the direction that creative director Tom Ford and Gucci president Domenico de Sole wanted to take YSL Rive Gauche’s RTW line. Ford splashed YSL across headlines for his sexual and provocative campaigns, greatly upsetting Saint Laurent and Bergé’s more elegant inclinations. As a result, animosity grew between the two sides until the death of Saint Laurent in 2008. Bergé and Saint Laurent were conspicuously absent for Ford’s debut collection with YSL Rive Gauche; Ford, for his part, missed Saint Laurent’s YSL couture show around the same time.
Through the decades up until Saint Laurent died on June 1, 2008, Bergé would be the designer’s champion and protector. Some critics claimed Berge fed Saint Laurent’s neuroses, but he also helped support a tortured man who, Bergé once revealed, tried to commit suicide several times and who became addicted to drugs and alcohol. The couple split romantically in 1976, but Bergé and Saint Laurent continued to remain business partners and friends even after Saint Laurent retired in 2002.
Bergé examined their relationship in his 2010 book “Letters to Yves,” which spoke frankly about their arguments as well as sex.
“I stayed with him because I loved him,” Bergé told WWD in a 2010 interview. “It’s not because the problems you are facing are alcohol and drugs that they are any different from cancer or AIDS, or any serious disease. To me, they are the same thing. And I don’t think you leave someone you are living with because they have cancer.”
After Saint Laurent’s death, 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 afterwards Saint Laurent’s death, Bergé decided to auction off the treasure trove of priceless art and furniture collected by the couple to establish their foundation. (Interestingly and perhaps typically, in a move that was criticized by some longtime admirers of Saint Laurent’s, Bergé put his name first on the foundation’s walls.)
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.
But even as he will forever be remembered as Saint Laurent’s partner, Bergé used that to extend his influence to 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 were the Pierre Bergé and Associés auction house, which has offices in Paris and Brussels, and Bergé also sat on various boards 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 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.
In a statement, Pigasse and Niel pledged to defend the independence of the daily Le Monde, which they co-owned with Bergé, who frequently — and controversially — voiced his displeasure with articles written by the newspaper’s staff.
“Pierre was a brilliant entrepreneur, a demanding reader but also and above all a man of culture and conviction,” they said.
The executor of Cocteau’s estate, Bergé collected rare books and wrote several others. His collection of 1,000 rare manuscripts and first editions was sold at auction in 2015, raising $12.8 million for the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.
Bergé’s wine collection was sold off last year, again to raise money for the foundation, which over the last decade had become his passion — along with protecting the legacy of Saint Laurent.
Asked by WWD in 2010 what the late designer would have thought about the ongoing interest with his life and work, Bergé’s response captured his lifelong fascination with creative genius — and perhaps summed up his view of mortality.
“I think he would have been very proud,” Bergé said of Saint Laurent. “I think he would have had the proof that he was right and that he would continue to exist even after his death, because that is what happens when an artist, a real artist, dies. He lives on after his death. You know, it’s like those stars that have died, but continue to shine in the sky.”