PARIS — In the elite constellation of fashion muses, few have shone as brightly as Loulou de la Falaise.
During her heyday in the Sixties and Seventies, Yves Saint Laurent’s right-hand woman hobnobbed with everyone from Robert Mapplethorpe to Andy Warhol, and had affairs with the likes of Kenzo Takada and “Performance” director Donald Cammell.
In later years, Saint Laurent would give her credit for designing his costume jewelry and accessories for the runway and de la Falaise went on to launch a namesake collection of fashion and accessories in 2003 that traded on her signature mix of English pedigree and bohemian Left Bank chic.
Since her death in 2011, her legend has grown further, as evidenced by her continued pull on designers from Anthony Vaccarello, the current creative director of Saint Laurent, to niche labels like Milan-based Blazé, whose spring line of luxury tailored jackets was inspired by her Moroccan jaunts with Saint Laurent.
Christopher Petkanas, who covered the Saint Laurent clan during his tenure in the Paris bureau of Women’s Wear Daily between 1982 and 1988, knows more than most about the woman behind the myth, yet he got more than he bargained for when he set out to write his biography of the fashion icon.
In his book, “Loulou & Yves: The Untold Story of Loulou de la Falaise and the House of Saint Laurent,” set to be published by St. Martin’s Press on April 17, Petkanas challenges the official house history, which contends that for three decades de la Falaise was happy to exist as Saint Laurent’s cheerleader and sounding board.
The oral biography deals in the kind of salacious detail last read in Alicia Drake’s 2007 tome “The Beautiful Fall,” with quotes — drawn from 153 original interviews and previously published material — from everyone from Loulou herself to her mother, Maxime de la Falaise; Marisa Berenson; Diane von Furstenberg; André Leon Talley; Lady Annabel Goldsmith, and members of Saint Laurent’s inner circle.
(The last big book about Loulou de la Falaise, published by Rizzoli in 2014, was more of a family affair, since it was written by her former business partner, Ariel de Ravenel, and featured a foreword by Saint Laurent’s partner, Pierre Bergé, and an afterword by her second husband, Thadée Klossowski de Rola.)
The Petkanas tome delves into de la Falaise’s troubled childhood, her addiction to drugs and alcohol and her tumultuous relationship with men. But most intriguingly, it suggests that the woman known for her dazzling smile was frustrated by her role at Saint Laurent, and was ultimately let down by Bergé when she hit financial straits at the end of her life.
The cast of characters is so vast, reading the book is best approached with an iPhone in hand (though the online research proves to be an entertaining side project). Frustratingly, for a tome that has been several years in the making, it misspells some of the names of well-known fashion figures, among them Jacques de Bascher and model Nadja Auermann.
But at 495 pages, it will no doubt prove essential reading for anyone fascinated with the Saint Laurent legend. The book will be launched with a signing at the Bookmarc store in New York on Tuesday, to be followed by a talk moderated by Fern Mallis at 92Y on Wednesday.
In an interview, Petkanas talked about getting the story, his fraught relationship with WWD’s then publisher and editorial director John B. Fairchild and why a complicated truth has more pull than a fairy tale.
WWD: The title of your book is “The Untold Story.” What do you feel that it brings to the YSL canon that has not been revealed before?
Christopher Petkanas: The press release version of Loulou’s career at Saint Laurent — that it was all smiley, that it was so happy, that she never had any other ambition in the 30 years she was there to do anything but remain by his side and serve him — as we learn from the book, that is just not true. And even in her own lifetime, there were things she said, and things other people said, that led me to explore that idea.
She did want to leave a number of times, her husband Thadée recounts in his diaries. She starts in 1972. She hadn’t even been there 18 months when she wanted to leave. She said — again, this is from his diaries — she didn’t think she was paid enough and she didn’t like fashion people. She wanted out. Fast-forward to 1977, when they marry, I think she was at that point again, and if you subscribe to the theory that it was Pierre [Bergé] who arranged the marriage, part of the reason was to keep her in Paris and to keep her with Yves.
There are other aspects that sort of undo what is generally thought about her, which is that she had this absolutely harmonious marriage that was untainted, and they were destined for each other. They married in 1977, [their daughter] Anna was born in 1985, and right then, she embarks on this affair with Alain Elkann, Lapo’s father, who was at the time living with Diane von Furstenberg in Paris — so that kind of puts the kibosh on the way that they have always been presented as a couple to the world.
WWD: Had this affair never been publicly revealed before?
C.P.: It had, and I’m quite clear about that in the book, because Diane von Furstenberg has written two memoirs and in the first one…she doesn’t name Loulou, then she does name Loulou in the second book when Loulou is already dead, and I thought that was really cowardly.
WWD: With all due regard for what you just said, do you think, in a sense, that Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé both had to be dead for you to be able to write the book that you wanted to write?
C.P.: Absolutely not. My book was deep in proofs before Pierre died last September. I had turned my manuscript in a full year before Pierre died.
WWD: I’ve often heard that people trying to write about the Saint Laurent clan would run into a wall of silence. How easy was it for you to get people to talk?
C.P.: I’m a reporter who, if I can’t get through the front door, I go in through the window. There were obstacles. I’ve never accepted defeat. I can tell you that some people who were instructed not to talk to me, talked to me because they were instructed not to. So, in other words, it backfired. By the way, I’m not fingering Mr. Bergé on this. He did not care enough, I don’t believe, to cause any trouble. I may be wrong, but I don’t think it was him.
WWD: There are a lot of characters in the book. How did you decide who to include, and who to leave out, to achieve this vast tapestry?
C.P.: I kept a running list. I started with a list even before I began, and then of course, the list grew and grew and grew.
It tops out at about 153 original interviews. I’m very proud of that number, but there was the Bunny Mellon biography that came out in the fall, and she was just under 200. I know what it takes to interview 200 people, or 153 at least, and how many pairs of shoes you have to wear out to do that.
WWD: Very few of the boldface names in the book escape unscathed, and they end up looking like a pretty callow bunch. Was that intentional, or is that something that developed organically from your conversations?
C.P.: Honestly, I would say organically. I mean, look at somebody like Karl Lagerfeld. I mean, he’s not a super major figure in the book, but when I look back, I think he comes out OK. If anything, I kind of agree with this speech he’s been giving for decades about how fashion design is not art, and if it gives you anxiety, choose another métier. He does say that, and he’s attacked Yves over the years on that score, and I allow him to do that in the book as well.
There’s that crazy Louboutin anecdote. You know, I didn’t feel one way or another about Christian Louboutin going into the book. I did not know he was such a good friend of Loulou’s. He was incredibly tough to get. People were working on him not to see me. He didn’t give me very much that was useful at all. It was very sort of happy, and their friendship, but then I wound up interviewing this shoe designer who is quite well known — although not to me at all — called Michel Vivien, and he recounts the whole story of the retrospective [Saint Laurent’s final show in 2002], and Saint Laurent not being a fan of Louboutin’s at all, and Michel Vivien getting, substantially, the gig, and then Louboutin manages to insert himself with Loulou and winds up doing that famous shoe [a transparent vinyl evening sandal with the YSL logo on the instep.]
I don’t know if that’s taking him down, but this crazy anecdote fell into my lap, and I used it. He looks a little silly, but also, it’s up to the reader to decide. I think Michel Vivien is perfectly credible, I believe it happened, but maybe somebody reads that and thinks that Vivien is trying to take down Louboutin. But that’s up to the reader.
WWD: Let’s talk about your period at WWD: It’s clear there was no love lost between you and the late John Fairchild.
C.P.: I haven’t thought about him for years. I submitted the manuscript, and then I realized that there were things that I could add about my working at the paper that would give me more authority to tell this story. John Fairchild is such a big part of the Saint Laurent story, and when I read books by my colleagues that talk about him, I don’t recognize him. Fair enough, you know. I must say, he didn’t treat me any more [poorly] than he treated anybody else, but somehow, those people have come away with a very nice memory of him. I have not.
There’s this anecdote that is very clear in the book where he sends me, on a Sunday, to sit on a bench opposite Saint Laurent all day to watch for a dress, in a bag — if it came, which it never did. I think, as I say in the book, that’s abusive and you would never get away with that today.
WWD: On the jacket sleeve, you refer to Loulou being sexually abused as a child by her foster parents. I could only find one person in the book saying that directly. Were you worried about including something like that on the basis of one person?
C.P.: I think what’s in the book on its own is perfectly solid. I mean, the two people who talk about it in depth, one is [art historian] John Richardson, who as a source is unassailable, I think — extremely close to [Loulou’s mother] Maxime. He tries to understand why it was allowed to happen without any sort of pushback, and I think that’s very, very detailed.
Loulou, I had to dig really, really deep, but she talked about her years with that family and she remembered them. She and her quotes, every bit of everything she ever said about those years, and that family, and that man and that woman, is in the book. If you read her quotes closely, with the knowledge gained from what John Richardson says, you can piece it together, but she does not explicitly say that she was abused.
WWD: Did you have any moral qualms about digging into her life, or did the reporter in you want everything to be brought to light, to counter the fairy tale version that is the one that most people know?
C.P.: It’s hard to remember how I thought it was going to shape up when I began. I think that is the way to go into a biography, sort of not knowing, but I had no idea so many provocative things were going to come up, and so many things that had never been known.
It’s Ricardo Bofill [the architect who was Loulou’s lover before she married Thadée Klossowski] who uses the word “nymphomaniac” in my interview with him.
That’s a very, very, very strong word. I couldn’t believe it. That’s something for example that I did not anticipate learning, and then it turns out to have this aspect of her choosing to sleep with gay men and sort of trophy hunting, as he describes it. Those are hard subjects to deal with as an author, even if I’m just letting people speak.
WWD: You mentioned that you met Loulou on countless occasions when you were working at WWD, but the two encounters you describe in greater depth both involved you leaving feeling either embarrassed or uncomfortable. Are you worried you’ll be accused of writing this book because of sour grapes?
C.P.: I don’t see how that could be leveled at me. She wasn’t interested in being friends with me.
The people at Saint Laurent, including Loulou, they didn’t need to befriend anybody in the Women’s Wear Paris bureau, because they had their conduit in John Fairchild.
I don’t feel like I get back at her personally in any way. In a sense, I take her side.
She never complained about Pierre, even to her closest friends, and I’m thinking about the end, when she lost all her money and had to give up her apartment in Paris. She was too elegant, too whatever. She was an eventful person, but she never betrayed any anger or dissatisfaction with Pierre, and yet the question remains: why didn’t he help her? It would have cost him absolutely nothing, and wasn’t it the least he owed her? But the point is, he intentionally did not help her.
It’s such a stain on him. She fell apart. She moved out of Rue des Plantes in November 2010, and she died a year later.