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Union Criticizes Pinault Over YSL

PARIS — The acrimony continues to fly in the byzantine procedure to close the doors on retiring designer Yves Saint Laurent’s legendary couture house. <br><br>At a news conference at the house Friday, CGT union leaders denounced French...

PARIS — The acrimony continues to fly in the byzantine procedure to close the doors on retiring designer Yves Saint Laurent’s legendary couture house.

At a news conference at the house Friday, CGT union leaders denounced French billionaire François Pinault for what they called his “inadmissible” plans to close the operation. YSL Couture employs 150 people.

“Pinault would rather liquidate the house than hammer out a severance deal for the workers because it will cost him less money,” charged CGT union secretary general Christian Larose.

Pinault is believed to have spent some $20 million from his personal holding company, Artemis, to finance the money-losing couture operation. When he acquired YSL Couture in 1999, Pinault agreed to fund it through 2006.

But those plans were revisited when Saint Laurent retired in January. In March, Pinault reached a deal with French industrialist Patrice Bouygues to sell YSL Couture for a nominal euro, or about a dollar. Bouygues said he would transform YSL’s ateliers into a multi-brand fashion operation.

That plan died in a Paris court last month when a judge ruled that the workers could not be forced to give their opinion on the takeover plan, a procedure required by French law.

The latest twist in the saga came last week when Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé announced they would buy back the house they founded for a euro. In a statement, Bergé said he wanted to work with Pinault to find an equitable solution for the workers. Bergé was not present at the news conference Friday.

Larose said the workers “agreed in principle” to negotiate closure of the house with Bergé. First, however, he said Artemis must up its severance package. “We want $20 million on the table before we start negotiating,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Pinault said he had already agreed to add $6 million to the $8 million already in the house’s coffers.

“If I understand correctly, Bergé said he would add another $2 million,” she said. “That makes $16 million to be spread around. Once Bergé takes control of the house, though, the responsibility to find an agreement with the workers will be on his shoulders, not Mr. Pinault’s.”

This story first appeared in the July 29, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Meanwhile, Larose disclosed that Gucci Group last week paid YSL Couture $6 million to acquire its now-closed haute couture shop on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and the rights to YSL couture designs since 2000. His inference was that that $6 million could be used for the severance package.

But Pinault’s spokeswoman said that money would likely go to Artemis, not YSL Couture.

If a deal fails to materialize, Pinault and the YSL Couture workers will again face off in court on Oct. 22. By the end of September, the house will have filled its last couture orders, according to workers in the atelier.