MARRAKESH, Morocco — Until the death of Pierre Bergé last month, Madison Cox was best known as a gifted — though ultradiscreet — landscape gardener with a list of clients including Marella Agnelli, Michael Bloomberg and Sting.
News that he tied the knot with Saint Laurent’s longtime companion and business partner in March raised his public profile a notch. Now the 59-year-old finds himself thrust into the limelight as president of the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, in charge of preserving the legacy of fashion’s most famous power couple.
The elegant, quietly spoken Cox assumed the mantle with the inauguration earlier this month of the Yves Saint Laurent museum in Marrakesh, where he has lived part-time for the better part of two decades. He is also president of the Fondation Jardin Majorelle, which runs the neighboring garden, bought by Saint Laurent and Bergé in 1980.
Cox has been less involved with the Yves Saint Laurent museum in Paris, inaugurated last month, and admits he is still working out how to balance his passion for gardens with his new responsibilities.
Here, Cox talks about taking up the baton from Bergé, learning how to run a museum and coping with his newfound fame:
WWD: You’ve been in the Saint Laurent orbit for around three decades, is that right?
Madison Cox: Yes, since 1977 or 1978.
WWD: Did you ever at any point think you would find yourself in this position?
M.C.: Never, never. No, not at all. And in fact, at that time, I never remember overhearing any conversation about future museums or anything. I think these all came about in the last few years, especially with Marrakesh.
After the couture house was first closed in 2002, and then after Yves Saint Laurent passed away [in 2008], there was this system of temporary exhibitions that were all really completely organized and defined by Pierre Bergé. And I had a conversation with him a few years ago which was, what would be the destiny of all that? Because he was the man in the driver’s seat in those things, and they were his passions, his interests and his curiosities.
They were his personal points of view, which was interesting, but I didn’t see myself continuing that and I didn’t know who would continue that.
I didn’t push him, but I suggested strongly that maybe the destiny of the collection should be a museum.
When I became director of the Majorelle Garden, there was a museum there where the two of them exhibited pieces they had purchased over the years when they would come to Morocco.
I had some very talented experts in that field make an analysis of the collection, and then it turned out that some of the pieces obviously were Islamic Moroccan, but there were also a number of pieces that were Berber, which is the indigenous tribes prior to the arrival of the Arabs here. There are also pieces that came from Syria, that came from Egypt, that came from Turkey — so they weren’t Moroccan. So I had to go back to them and say, “Well, listen, you’ve got pieces here that are extraordinary, but a lot of them don’t fall into this category of Moroccan Islamic decorative arts — but you have a very strong number of pieces from the Berber tribes.” And fairly shortly thereafter, there was a woman that had come to Pierre Bergé about selling her collection of Berber jewelry.
So he purchased that collection of jewelry, and between that collection of jewelry and the other Berber pieces came the idea of creating a Berber museum, which is the first of its kind in the country. We renovated the museum, and then I went to Pierre Bergé and said, “Why don’t we mount an exhibition about Yves Saint Laurent and Morocco?” — the influence of Morocco in Saint Laurent’s work, which was very strong. He had always said that it was here that he learned about the importance of color, and juxtapositions with playing with color. So just before we installed the Berber collection, we had this short temporary exhibition. The thing that was remarkable was that in that three-month period, we had 50,000 visitors, and in large majority they were Moroccans.
That sparked in Pierre the idea, why don’t we do something? Because there is really this almost unique circumstance where you have a fashion designer, a couturier, but who’s linked to a place. They’re all linked to New York, they’re all linked to Paris, they’re all linked to Milan — their places of work. But where is there a place with a culture that is that strong, that also was reflected in his work — I mean, apart from the fact that this was also a holiday retreat? So that’s where the idea was born.
It was a unique project for Pierre Bergé, because he had never built anything from scratch. He’d always renovated structures, houses. So all of a sudden, he had architects in an office at the table and they said, “Well, what do you want, Monsieur Bergé?” He has a blank slate: O.K., well of course we’ll do something with an Yves Saint Laurent exhibit, but why not have a temporary exhibition space? Why not have an auditorium where we can screen films, have symposiums, live broadcasts of opera? And let’s not do a gift shop, let’s do more of a bookshop so that we can also obviously sell books relating to Saint Laurent, but then other aspects of this culture that we also promote and publish, whether it’s botanics or Berber culture. And then the other element, which is key to me, is the library upstairs, which is a reference library. There’s no real public library here in Marrakesh. There’s a national library in Rabat, but there’s nothing here, so Pierre Bergé, before he passed away, gave his collection of books relating to Arab-Andalusian culture, basically the Moorish culture.
I also have my own garden books, so I’ve given them as well. We have a section on Berber culture. We have over 6,000 volumes. They’ll be put online and then people will make reservations to come actually visit and see them. You can get everything online now, but there’s nothing like physically discovering the power of books.
WWD: When was the actual moment that Pierre Bergé suggested that you should be the one to continue his work?
M.C.: When they founded the foundation, he’d asked me to become vice president. At that point, he probably made that decision. We discussed it and it was something I felt comfortable with.
WWD: He was so meticulous about everything. Was there a handover period where he indicated to you what he thought would be the important lines to work on?
M.C.: No, I never had those conversations or indications or outlines or directives in that sense, which is obviously one of the most terrifying things, at the same time. I’m a garden designer. I had never been involved in the conception of a museum. I’ve worked on projects for museums as a garden designer, but never as the client. For the first time, the tables turned. I was on one side of the table as the client or representing the client, the foundation here in Morocco, with consultants, architects, designers, etc. So it was a very different role for me to play. Also it was a world that was totally unknown to me in terms of museum conservation, especially when you talk about textiles and paper conservation here, because we have a large library that was one of the pieces of this big puzzle. So what I did very early on in the project is, I sort of educated myself in visiting other institutions, other museums, other libraries, other collections to see how they conserved paper, books, textiles.
Harold Koda, just before he retired, very kindly invited me to go visit their newly renovated conservation department [at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,] which is absolutely incredible. That had been 10 years in the making, so it was very interesting for me early on. I went to the Victoria & Albert Museum, where they were wonderful.
I visited the Frick Library to see how they conserve books and what are the materials they use for shelving, what temperature. So that was fascinating for me, because it was not a world that I was sensitive to. The same thing with the auditorium, which was very close to Pierre Bergé’s heart, having been the director of the Paris Opera and a producer of numerous theatrical and musical events. He really wanted that auditorium to be acoustically as perfect as perfect can be.
I’m a music lover, but to understand the logistics of how one creates a space that’s acoustically interesting and good for a performer was a challenge.
WWD: Are you going to reduce your gardening activities as a result of your new duties?
M.C.: No, I will try not to. It’s my greatest passion and I love doing it. I’m going through a period right now where I’m just focusing on trying to get this museum [off the ground]. I was very involved in this museum, unlike Paris. I attended almost all the meetings with the architects, with Björn Dahlström, the director, with our multitude of consultants, and one of the things I’ve tried to do here also was to create an institution where we could bring pieces or borrow pieces from Western institutions.
I realized that we had also to conform to Western conditions for exhibition climate control and conservation, so we’ve done all of that as well. So it’s really a first of its kind in Morocco.
WWD: You have an amazing board of advisers here, including Valerie Steele, director of The Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Olivier Gabet, director of Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris. How do they work with the museum?
M.C.: A few years ago, when we were first working on the conception of the museum, I proposed the idea, why don’t we do as other institutions do, create an advisory board? I felt it was important for the future of the two museums.
We met first just after the opening of the Paris museum, the following Monday, and it was actually a really fascinating meeting, because we have Dr. [Akiko] Fukai, who is from the Kyoto Costume Institute, Laurent Le Bon, who is the president of the Picasso museum. They are related, but sometimes unrelated, institutions, and it was actually very interesting.
It’s fascinating for me because I’m not of that world, but they all have something to contribute in that sense, either from a technical or even philosophical aspect, whereas the honorary committee are really friends or clients of Saint Laurent.
WWD: Will you be involved in future Yves Saint Laurent exhibitions being organized worldwide?
M.C.: No, that will probably be the team in Paris. In the past, I have spent a week a month or 10 days a month here [in Marrakesh], although these last few years, I’ve been almost shuttling back and forth between projects like a juggler. But I hope things will calm down a little bit. They probably won’t.
WWD: How do you feel about the increased public scrutiny that this role brings with it?
M.C.: This is not something that I enjoy terribly, but I guess it’s something unavoidable.
WWD: You’re carrying the mantle now.
M.C.: Yes, well, insha’Allah [“God willing” in Arabic], as they say here.