Pierre Bergé, credited with catapulting Yves Saint Laurent and the French fashion industry into a legitimate, profitable business, died on Friday in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, after a long battle with myopathy (a neuromuscular disorder). He was 86.
“People may hate me or love me, but they all want to brag that they once sat next to me at a dinner party,” The New York Times reported he once said. And it’s true. Despite starting Yves Saint Laurent, the company, with Yves Saint Laurent, the designer, in 1961 when the two were lovers, Bergé achieved fame in his own right. His legacy not only includes managing the brand, which he did until 2002, but also his time leading the French Opera, and of course, all of his infamous drama with fellow fashion insiders.
Bergé notably took on Karl Lagerfeld, saying “Karl’s big problem is that he has never been successful with his own label. And he has not been able to reach the same level of success as under the name of Chanel. It is sad.” Lagerfeld naturally responded, saying, “he should stick with his old books." (Bergé was, for what it’s worth, selling items in his personal library at the time of that comment).
But, as for as criticism was concerned, he didn’t only have eyes for Lagerfeld. Bergé also had some not-so-nice words for Tom Ford and Stefano Pilati, two of Saint Laurent’s successors. In fact, he told Vogue’s Suzy Menkes: “I would like to say precisely that I recognise a lot of talent from Tom Ford (though, he reportedly made Ford “miserable”) — but it is for marketing. And that he had, in effect, redone the Gucci brand in a spectacular fashion, and I have a lot of admiration for that. I will say to you again, 'admiration.' But he was incapable of succeeding Yves Saint Laurent. Therefore it was, as you know, a flop. As for Pilati, it is better not to talk about it because it was nothing at all.”
Bergé did embrace two of Saint Laurent’s successors, though. He and Hedi Slimane seemed to have a father/son-like relationship, and he spoke highly of his work, even when he didn’t particularly like all of it. He told Menkes: “He has a real vision. You have to accept that, with its qualities and faults. That is what I think. I like him very much, I like Hedi a lot — a lot.”
In a statement released after Bergé's death, current artistic director Anthony Vaccarello said: “It is with a deep emotion that I have learned of Pierre Bergé’s passing. He welcomed me with kindness since my first day at Saint Laurent. His advice and his support have always guided me. I am infinitely sad that he will not be able to attend the opening of the two museums in Paris and Marrakech that he cared about so much. A great figure in French culture has left us.”
French President Emmanuel Macron echoed similar sentiments. “With Pierre Bergé, a whole portion of our literary and artistic legacy is disappearing,” he told Women’s Wear Daily. “It will be up to his friends and those who were guided by him to keep that memory alive and to help the French understand the importance of what he did for French culture and to perpetuate his work.”