Obituary: Pierre Bergé, co-founder of YSL fashion house and philanthropist

Pierre Vital Georges Bergé, businessman, campaigner, philanthropist. Born: 14 November 1930, Ile d'Oleron, France. Died: 8 September 2017, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, aged 86.

Pierre Berge
Pierre Berge

High school drop-out Pierre Bergé, who was the partner of designer Yves Saint Laurent, helped co-found the fashion house and was the driving force behind the multi-million pound brand and its phenomenal international success, at a time when the other major Parisian fashion houses were ailing and not embracing the economic opportunities in the newly opening world markets. His bold innovation, which revolutionised the fashion world and became a financial and critical success, was “ready-to-wear”.

The diminutive and pugnacious Bergé was also a socialite and networker with many interests, including politics, this year supporting Emmanuel Macron’s successful presidential election campaign. He was also a tireless campaigner for gay rights, donated millions to Aids research and was a voracious collector of art.

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Former French culture minister Jack Lang described Bergé as a “true prince of the arts and culture”, a business angel who backed a host of good causes.

Born on the Île d’Oléron in the Bay of Biscay just off France’s west coast near La Rochelle, Pierre Bergé was the son of Pierre, a tax official and Christiane, an amateur soprano and teacher. Aged 17, he dropped out of school and departed for post-war Paris to make his fortune. He became as passionate about culture as he did about making money and found his new home among the city’s arts and fashion elites. Bergé’s gift lay in meeting people of consequence, by contrivance or accident.

Upon arriving in Paris, Bergé made his first few francs as a student bibliophile by buying second-hand books down by the Seine in the morning and selling them, at a good profit, in the afternoon to antiquarian book dealers. Two years later he founded a short-lived anarchist magazine, La Patrie Mondiale.

He later said that on his first day, while walking along the Champs-Elysées, the poet Jacques Prévert fell out of an apartment window and landed on him. Soon after, Bergé met the expressionist artist Bernard Buffet, becoming his lover, unofficial agent and hugely facilitating his success. He began socialising with Paris’ intelligentsia, including Jean Cocteau, whose copyrights he acquired after the writer’s death.

Through Buffet, Bergé met Cocteau, then Christian Dior and, as Bergé always said, “et voilà!” a young, introverted Saint Laurent in 1957. It was love at first sight. Bergé recalled: “We talked of everything but fashion. We discussed theatre, movies and painting… I like people who are mysterious, fragile and creative. He was all three. You couldn’t ask for more.”

With the death of Dior in 1957, the 21-year-old apprentice designer Saint Laurent was propelled to the top of the legendary Parisian fashion house. However, military service intervened. After a rough month, which left him hospitalised, Bergé stepped in. Using his considerable contacts, he gained access to him and became his rock. He also formulated a strategy for their futures.

Saint Laurent returned to civilian life but his position at Dior had been usurped. With Bergé’s guidance, he successfully sued his former employer for damages, which enabled them to fund an independent Yves Saint Laurent atelier in 1961, to which Dior’s cream defected; YSL was launched with Bergé successfully negotiating lucrative contracts around the world.

Saint Laurent’s eponymous label became a renegade presence in the fashion industry thanks to a series of bold design offerings, from the Mondrian-influenced collection of 1965 to 1966’s “Le Smoking”.

Bergé explained their formula, “I never interfere in his domain of creation and he never enters my world of business. We are not alike as people. He is introspective and solitary. I like people. I enjoy travelling and he loathes it. I like cooking and fine wine, and he isn’t interested at all. But we do share the same judgments, the same aesthetic taste in objects and the same belief in the importance of creativity.”

Bergé used his arts network to promote exhibitions of Saint Laurent; showcasing a living designer was a novelty, and Bergé went global to museums in Beijing, Moscow and New York.

The couple were inseparable and despite their volatile relationship and Saint Laurent’s infidelities and addictions, Bergé always firmly believed that he was “the world’s greatest fashion designer of the second half of the 20th century”. No matter what had preceded, the ever-present Bergé ensured that what Yves wanted, Yves got. “Pierre la Panthère”, as he was dubbed, was rarely inhibited by sensitivity, screaming at fax machines for printing slowly and kicking the cameras out of the hands of paparazzi.

YSL ready-to-wear was Bergé’s initial bold move; his next one turned the fashion on its head. As company president, he sold its rights in 1971 for capital to invest in a different way of staging couture shows, making them more like rock concerts, with clothes as loss-leaders to promote licensed accessories and perfumes. YSL made enough to buy back the rights in 1973.

He also made innovative and complex deals for the time; in 1986 he sold 25 per cent of YSL for enough to buy Charles of the Ritz, which owned rights to Saint Laurent perfumes and cosmetics. Three years later and 27 times oversubscribed, the YSL group became the first designer house to be listed on the Paris stock exchange. However, in 1992, hours before YSL released poor trading figures, Bergé sold some shares, which later resulted in a conviction for insider trading and a one million franc fine.

In 1993 the YSL fashion house was bought by Sanofi, the pharmaceutical giant and, in 1999, the brand was sold to Gucci, making both men immensely wealthy. The couple remained involved, but they became scathing of the label’s direction.

The colourful Paris couple split in 1976, when Saint Laurent turned to drink, drugs, and seclusion, although their friendship and business endured. Cleaned-up, the couple entered a civil partnership days before the designer died of a brain tumour in 2008, aged 71.

After Saint Laurent’s death, Bergé dedicated much of his energy to nurturing the designer’s legacy. Berge’s activism extended far beyond gay rights and, in 2010, he led a trio of left-leaning and centrist tycoons to “save” the renowned Le Monde newspaper despite right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempts to stop them. He also worked as a Unesco goodwill ambassador and helped Chinese pro-democracy protesters. He wrote several books, including the very personal Lettre à Yves.

Bergé received the Ordre national du Mérite (1987), and France’s highest honour, the Légion d’honneur (Grand Officier) in 2015.

Bergé died from the effects of myopathy, and is survived by his long-term partner, Madison Cox, an American landscape architect whom he married earlier this year.