PARIS — Yves Saint Laurent is giving the Eiffel Tower a run for its money as France’s most famous monument.
In addition to a blockbuster exhibition devoted to the work of the late couturier, 2010 will see the release of a slew of Yves Saint Laurent books, a CD, a movie and even a coloring book.
Pierre Bergé, his former partner and longtime business manager, said he can’t take full credit for the avalanche of projects in the pipeline, though he trusts the retrospective to be staged at the Petit Palais will confirm Saint Laurent’s status as one of the greatest designers of the 20th century.
“There has never been an exhibition of this scale about Yves Saint Laurent,” said Bergé, sitting in the conference room of the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation in Paris, where a large-scale Andy Warhol portrait of the designer dominates the back wall.
The retrospective, scheduled to run from March 11 to Aug. 29, will feature more than 300 outfits spanning a 40-year career. That is twice the size of the Saint Laurent exhibitions staged at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and de Young Museum in San Francisco in 2008. It also covers a longer time period than the show held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1983.
Saint Laurent faithfuls Catherine Deneuve and Betty Catroux are among the guests expected to attend a private dinner on Tuesday, during Paris Fashion Week, to celebrate the opening of the show.
Almost two years after Saint Laurent’s death from brain cancer at the age of 71, Bergé is more active than ever in preserving the designer’s legacy. After all, the two were inseparable for close to half a century.
“The two of us formed a puzzle and we were made of pieces that fit together very precisely,” Berge said. “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.”
The exhibition is a scaled-down version of what Bergé originally had in mind. The businessman, whose interests include an auction house and caviar concern Prunier, would have liked to show Saint Laurent’s work alongside the huge art and antiques collection they jointly amassed, and which was sold last year in an auction dubbed “the sale of the century.”
“My dream would have been to do that,” he mused. “The slogan would have been: ‘Where the money comes from, where the money goes.’”
Though their former possessions are now scattered throughout the four corners of the world, the idea nicely encapsulates the tandem formed by Bergé, who was born on the Atlantic coast of France, and Saint Laurent, who moved to Paris at age 17 after spending his childhood in Oran, Algeria.
To say Bergé was the brains and Saint Laurent the talent fails to truly explain their complex partnership. Throughout his career, Saint Laurent lived in seclusion, plagued by depression and addiction to drugs and alcohol. Bergé acted as guardian of the temple, protecting Saint Laurent from outside influences and, some detractors say, perpetuating his neuroses. At the same time, he consolidated his status as a major figure of the arts world, filling posts that ranged from head of the Paris Opera to executor of Jean Cocteau’s literary estate.
After several forays into writing, including a 2003 memoir titled “Time Goes On, I Remain,” Bergé is about to release his most intimate work. “Letters to Yves,” to be published by Editions Gallimard on Thursday, is a collection of short texts that reveals an unexpectedly passionate side to the notoriously tart Bergé.
“I knew very well that people would write biographies about Yves Saint Laurent,” he said, explaining how the tome came about. “I’m not capable of doing that. It requires a distance from the subject that I do not possess. But I wanted to publish something about Yves Saint Laurent, and it occurred to me that the best way to do that was to write him letters.”
The book should silence those who accuse Bergé of trying to glorify the designer. True, he is unfailingly reverential when referring to the designer’s work. But he also paints a brutally honest picture of a tortured man who, he reveals, attempted to commit suicide several times, once trying to throw himself out of a window of the Pierre hotel in New York as Bergé desperately clung on. Another time, Saint Laurent — high on alcohol and cocaine — hurled a Greek statue at him in a fit of fury, he recounted.
“I stayed with him because I loved him,” said Bergé. “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.
“I am not challenging the myth,” he continued. “I wanted to delve into these details so that it would go on the record coming from me, in other words, with real authority and knowledge of events, so that next to that, books written by garbage collectors carry no importance whatsoever.”
Bergé was referring specifically to “Saint Laurent, mauvais garçon” (“Saint Laurent, bad boy”), a biography by French journalist Marie-Dominique Lelièvre which has fanned much gossip in Paris fashion circles since it was published in late January.
He does not hide his contempt for the book, though he says he will not sue the author. “I know very well that a biography is not a hagiography,” he said. “But a biography and an indictment are two very different things. This book is an indictment.”
His book, on the other hand, reads like an extended love letter. In it, Bergé evokes for the first time the role sex played in his relationship with Saint Laurent, describing their initial coup de foudre and subsequent infidelities.
In a section that is sure to raise eyebrows in France, still reeling from a row over Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand’s admission that he paid young male prostitutes for sex in Thailand, Bergé describes how he and Saint Laurent would spend afternoons at their house in Marrakech making love to young Moroccan men — although he writes that no money exchanged hands, saying both he and the late designer were opposed to sexual tourism.
Bergé, who co-founded the AIDS charity Sidaction and campaigns for gay rights, said Saint Laurent flirted with danger by indulging in unprotected sex with strangers. “I tell myself that Yves Saint Laurent was very lucky to dodge this disease. I had known for a very long time what to expect and I protected myself. I’m not sure Yves Saint Laurent totally understood all that,” he reflected.
In the book, he delights in explaining their art collection was informed largely by their sexual preferences, a fact Bergé never once mentioned in the dozens of interviews he granted at the time of the sale last year. “I can write about it, but not talk about it — it’s not quite the same thing,” he insisted. “I’m not going to talk to the media about my life and my sexuality. I don’t care about the media. Today, I am talking to Yves, so I said what I had to say.”
Having divested himself of most of the objects they owned, Bergé is now selling their Left Bank apartment on Rue de Babylone — without regrets. As he prepares to celebrate his 80th birthday later this year, he appears keen to focus on the essence of things.
“I didn’t say I was going to lay myself bare for the rest of my life. I don’t know,” he said, mulling over his newfound candor. “To tell you the truth, I think this book is a very important step in my life and will be very important in that respect. I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
He is not worried about public reaction, although, like any author, Bergé hopes for positive reviews. Most importantly, he wants to perpetuate the memory of Saint Laurent. To that end, Bergé has collaborated on several upcoming projects. A luxury four-volume boxed set from Editions de La Martinière showcases every couture outfit the designer ever sketched. “Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture: The Complete Works 1962-2002” provides a detailed running order of 81 collections through reproductions of close to 1,300 presentation boards featuring sketches, fabric swatches and other handwritten details.
He advised French singer Alain Chamfort during the preparation of his concept album and accompanying book, “Une Vie Saint Laurent,” released last month. Bergé also wrote the introduction to a book of photographs showing Saint Laurent posing naked for the launch of his first fragrance in 1971. “Yves Saint Laurent mis à nu,” which includes the infamous ad shot by photographer Jeanloup Sieff, will be published by Editions Albin Michel on April 1.
And Bergé reveals more about his relationship with the designer in “L’amour fou, Yves Saint Laurent-Pierre Bergé,” a documentary directed by Pierre Thorreton scheduled for release in the fall. Reflecting on the couturier’s legacy, Bergé noted that Saint Laurent accompanied the women’s liberation movement by giving them wearable clothes that allowed them to be both feminine and individual.
“No living designer measures up, in my opinion, in terms of the great lesson of Saint Laurent and Chanel, which was dressing women,” he said. “Saint Laurent had the courage to constantly rework the same jacket, the same trousers, the same tuxedo. They were always the same, yet not quite the same. Young and not-so-young designers no longer dare to do this, because they think there is no creation involved. I think there is much more creation in an admirably well-made blazer with perfect proportions, perfect fabric and great cut than in extravagant things that nobody can wear.”
Bergé slammed what he called designers “living in an ivory tower” who create conceptual fashion. “What I’m saying is that fashion that purports to dress women in outfits inspired by the 18th century or force them to wear ridiculous dresses is worthless,” he said. “In that case, I prefer brands like Zara, H&M and Banana Republic.”
What would Saint Laurent, who shunned public life following his retirement in 2002, make of the extraordinary interest in his life and work? “I think he would have been very proud,” Bergé said. “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.”