PARIS POSES THE QUESTION: ARE YSL, BERGE RETIRING?

Byline: Robert Murphy

PARIS — Is the legendary Yves Saint Laurent getting ready to retire?
Principals of the company aren’t commenting, but rumors are spreading fast in Paris that the 65-year-old designer might stride onto the runway for a final bow on Jan. 24, when he presents his spring couture collection in the gilded salons of the Hotel Intercontinental here.
The show will commemorate the 40th anniversary of his storied house and fashion circles here are speculating that it could prove an auspicious date for Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge, to drop the curtain on the couture operation.
Berge could not be reached for comment on Monday. But when asked over a week ago about the possibility of Saint Laurent’s retirement, he responded, “when we have something to say we’ll put out a press release.” Meanwhile, Artemis, the holding company of French financier Francois Pinault that bankrolls the money-losing couture business, declined to comment.
The talk of retirement, though, is perhaps being fanned by plans to air two 90-minute documentaries on the French cable TV network Canal Plus about Saint Laurent on the night of his show.
The first documentary — “Time Regained” — charts Saint Laurent’s life story, from childhood in Algeria to the near present. The second — “5 Avenue Marceau 75116 Paris” — is a behind-the-scenes account of the Saint Laurent couture studio, located at that address on the Right Bank.
Both were filmed by Frenchman David Teboul and are expected to generate wide interest because they were recorded with active participation from the usually reserved Saint Laurent.
In “Time Regained,” a reference to the final volume of Marcel Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time,” which is Saint Laurent’s favorite book, the designer provides running commentary. The documentary also integrates interviews with the chic Saint Laurent gang, from Betty Catroux to Loulou de la Falaise.
But if Saint Laurent and Berge plan to turn the films and anniversary into fireworks to mark their retirement — which would be a milestone in the history of fashion — the secret remains fiercely guarded.
Fashion insiders say Pinault is eager to severe his ties with Saint Laurent and Berge, with whom his relations are known to be icy. Pinault agreed to fund the couture operation in 1999, when he purchased the fashion house as part of the Sanofi Beaute deal and promptly resold it to Gucci Group.
YSL couture is believed to generate about $6 million in sales annually, but its losses are estimated at more than twice that sum.
Berge and Saint Laurent reaped $70 million when they surrendered the Rive Gauche ready-to-wear business to Gucci. Their contract stipulates that they can continue the couture until 2006.
Additionally, as part of their pact with Gucci, Berge and Saint Laurent also receive installment payments of about $6.6 million a year until 2006. If they retire before Dec. 31, 2002, however, that total projected figure will be sliced in half. In other words, if they were to retire after the January show, Berge and Saint Laurent would have three-and-a-half years left on their contract, and an estimated $23.1 million in installment payments would, in theory, be halved to $11.5 million.
This cash incentive could prompt Berge and Saint Laurent to take their contract to term. But Berge has become something of a gadfly to both Gucci and Pinault. When Saint Laurent last year opened a so-called haute-couture shop that sells bags, shoes and limited-edition clothes, next door to the YSL Rive Gauche store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, it was seen by many as an underhanded insult to Gucci.
Berge also has instigated Pinault by courting his archrival Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The most blatant instance was when Berge and Saint Laurent sat next to Arnault at Hedi Slimane’s debut for Christian Dior men’s. They did not attend Gucci’s creative director Tom Ford’s debut at YSL.
Slimane, who previously designed men’s wear for YSL, defected to Arnault’s Dior after Gucci assumed control of Rive Gauche.

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