“The secret of the success of Yves Saint Laurent was that creativity always came before business and money,” Berge said in an interview last Thursday at the company’s Avenue Marceau couture headquarters. “I never had to go to Yves and say, ‘You’ve got to watch the bottom line.’ He always had utter freedom, creatively and financially, to do what he wanted.”
Yet the list of the house’s business accomplishments runs long — from being the first Paris couturier to pioneer a coherent strategy for ready-to-wear in the days still ruled by haute couture, to being the first fashion house quoted on the stock market. Those business milestones rival those that Saint Laurent achieved on the fashion runway.
In many respects, they are a product of Berge’s uncanny ability to exploit the idiosyncrasies of the fashion industry. Equally comfortable cajoling investors or barking orders in the couture atelier, he was tenacious as a bulldog in the boardroom and sensitive enough outside of it to nurture Saint Laurent’s artistic sensibility.
“Fashion is a business,” said Berge. “But there is no business without creation — and creation is a very fragile process.”
Sitting in his wood-paneled office, a portrait of Saint Laurent done by Warhol hanging above his desk, Berge reminisced about the years he spent pouring energy into building Saint Laurent’s artistry into a multimillion-dollar brand with a global scope.
He said that when he and Saint Laurent founded the house in 1962, financed by the American investor J. Mack Robinson, they never thought about fame or riches.
“Yves was driven by his need to create,” said Berge. “I was motivated by two things: my admiration and love of Yves, and revenge. I suppose the two were related. I wanted to get back at Christian Dior. They had thrown Yves out and had replaced him with Marc Bohan. You know, revenge has always motivated me.”
Soon, however, Berge said he realized the vast potential for the Saint Laurent brand and signed his first licensing deal. It was for men’s ties. “In those days, there was no other model except licensing,” explained Berge. “It was before ready-to-wear really existed. We exploited the model to its full extent.”
At one point Berge said the house counted more than 200 licenses, from cigarettes to bath towels.
“We did what everybody else was doing at that time,” he said. “We worked hard to control the quality of the licensed products. Of course, as time wore on, it got a bit out of control. But I didn’t accept to do everything. I refused a license for automobile tires. I was even approached by an American trash bag company — needless to say, I turned them down.”
By the mid-1990s, Berge said he had recognized that the era of rampant licensing had outgrown its britches. “I saw the change,” he said. “I saw what brands like Prada, Gucci and Vuitton — especially Vuitton — were up to. I knew we had to take back control of the distribution. We had already started to sever licensing agreements and buy back franchise boutiques. My one regret is that Sanofi decided to sell [YSL to French tycoon Francois Pinault] before I could really implement the new strategy to the new extent.”
That is the only regret Berge admits he has. “Building this business with Yves has been nothing but pure joy,” he insisted.
For instance, he recalls the day Saint Laurent decided to launch Rive Gauche, which is often hailed as among the company’s most astute business decisions. “It’s a total misconception that Rive Gauche was done with business in mind,” said Berge. “Yves wanted to do it because the world had changed. The couture seemed stagnant. He said ready-to-wear was the future of fashion.
“Rive Gauche was all Yves’s idea; I had to make it work as a business model.”
Opened in 1966 on Paris’s Left Bank — hence its name — the first shop quickly lead to about 180 Rive Gauche boutiques, mostly franchised, around the world. Innovative in its time, Rive Gauche became the paradigm other designers emulated to generate income and distribute their fashions.
But even if Saint Laurent efficiently married his creativity to Berge’s chutzpah from the beginning, it was only in 1977 — 16 years after they founded their business — that the house actually turned a profit.
“We had the luxury of being able to work around a long-term strategy,” said Berge. “We recognized the importance of building a brand. And we were lucky enough to have Mack Robinson and Richard Salomon as investors. We couldn’t have achieved what we did without their help. I can’t thank them enough.
“Today, a lot of designers have their hands tied behind their backs. Their fashion houses are quoted on the bourse and they have investors breathing down their necks; they are forced to put profits before creativity. That was never the case for Yves.”
When the profits arrived, they rolled in at a steady clip. At the height of the Saint Laurent empire, sales totaled about $650 million with about $42 million in profits. Sales were split between about $500 million for fragrances and beauty and $100 million in ready-to-wear and couture.
“We had three fragrances in the top 10 — Paris, Opium and Kouros for men,” bragged Berge. “That was some accomplishment.”
Like his fashions, Saint Laurent broke ground in the beauty arena. When he posed naked for Jeanloup Sieff for the YSL Pour Homme fragrance ad, the designer caused an uproar. The advertising for Opium, with a tag line that read “For Those Addicted to Yves Saint Laurent,” was equally scandalous. This type of provocative, image-driven advertising was a stark departure from other perfume ads of the time, which had largely relied on historical prestige — not references to sex and drugs. Saint Laurent’s advertising set the tone for many of the sexed-up fragrance ads that are still used today.
“But there was nothing calculated about the advertising for the fragrances,” explained Berge. “We didn’t sit down and strategize. It was Yves that felt instinctively that this would be the right thing to do at that time.
“You know, there is no one like a fashion designer to anticipate the times. They are plugged into the zeitgeist like no one else.”