Behind The Scenes Behind the Success

An interview with Pierre Bergé, the other half of Yves Saint Laurent, who since day one has been instrumental in creating the formidable YSL empire

By Michael Budman and Robert Sarner, Paris Passion, Oct. 1983

Within the fashion industry, Pierre Bergé’s name is immediately recognized – and respected – by all. Outside the business, he’s largely unknown, in striking contrast with his partner, whose name and initials are instantly recognized the world over and equated with the best of French style. But Yves Saint Laurent’s monumental success is due in large part to Bergé, whose business acumen, vision, and creative direction have made YSL one of the most venerated and enduring figures in the history of modern fashion.

Originally from La Rochelle, Bergé first met Saint Laurent in Paris when the young designer was just beginning his career at Christian Dior. In the fall of 1961, Bergé began laying the foundation for what would ultimately become an international empire, which he has supervised since its inception.

Described by one colleague “as one of the most cultivated men in France,” Bergé has long been extremely active in his support of and participation in the arts – especially in the fields of theatre and music.

Recently he met with Passion’s Michael Budman and Robert Sarner on a stormy summer afternoon in his office at the YSL headquarters on Avenue Marceau in the 16th arrondissement. It’s a beautifully appointed room with Art Deco furnishings dominated by a large Andy Warhol portrait of Saint Laurent on the wall behind Bergé’s desk. Herewith excerpts from their lengthy conversation.

Passion: When you first moved to Paris, did you have any particular plans?
P. Bergé: At the age of 17, when I came to Paris, I decided not to continue my studies because I never wanted to enter a system. I didn’t want become a dentist, lawyer, doctor, or professor. Never. All my friends became that. I wanted to be a journalist or a writer.

I always wanted to have a free life, maybe even without money – which didn’t turn out to be the case – but I always wanted to be independent. So I did many things; I was the secretary for an important writer, I sold books, I dealt in drawings and paintings and I represented a painter named Bernard Buffet.

It would seem to many an unlikely background for a person who today could be described as one of the most successful businessmen in France.
The first business I ever started was Yves Saint Laurent. And I never studied business. I don’t know how to count, except on my fingers. I don’t even like business. When you don’t like something, you are obliged to do it best and very fast. Otherwise, it’s very boring. If you don’t like business, the only way to do it is fast and best.

Very few people comprehend what it actually takes to oversee a large, creative enterprise, such as YSL, and to keep it on track.
But don’t forget that I control only half of the business. Yves controls the other half. And we never interfere with each other. Never. I think that’s very important. A lot has been said about the association between Yves and me, and people say that it’s extraordinary. The reason is that I’m not a businessman. I’m a frustrated artist, that’s all.

But doesn’t it take a certain creativity to direct such a business?
Yes, okay. Perhaps. I can be creative with figures.

But you do more than only work with numbers.
I don’t do anything artistic here. Not at all. The truth is that Yves doesn’t need me when it comes to talent and creativity. He hasn’t needed me and he probably never will. The only place where I’m important in this company is in helping him. That is, to surround him with people. To have made it so he never had any problems. When I had problems, I never went looking for him.

You take on all the problems yourself?
Completely. And as for the rest, if Yves had never met me, he would still have been Yves Saint Laurent. Unquestionably, he has talent and I never gave him that talent. What is more important? To build an empire or to have talent? For me, it’s to have talent and that’s something that Yves has an abundance of.

But behind the success, surely it’s the combination of Yves’s talent and your ability to take what he has and make a huge impact.
Yes, I know how to do that.

To much of the world, YSL represents a certain way of French life, the essence of French style. Is that something that evolved, or something you planned? It really seems to have a major impact in the United States right now.
Everywhere. And what’s very strange is to be a fashion designer and to be considered an artist by people who don’t care about clothes.

Why do you think it’s strange?
Because nowadays people couldn’t care less about clothes. There’s a discrepancy between what people admire and what they wear. Remember 20 or 30 years ago how people wanted to look like one another. People wanted to have the Chanel suit or the Balenciaga gown, anything at all. They admired Christian Dior and wanted to be dressed in Dior clothes. Today, people have gotten away from a leader, a direction. They’ve created their own fashion, which is a very complicated thing to do. And it’s strange that someone like Yves is this mythical character, widely admired, even by people who don’t care, who often don’t wear his fashions.

Do you think fashion is art?
Not exactly. It’s a certain kind of art. Fashion is not art but Yves is an artist. Balenciaga was an artist. Chanel was an artist. The difference is just product, that’s all. For me, there’s no difference between Balenciaga and Steinitz, except one was a designer and the other a painter.

There’s a certain talent and integrity reflected in everything at YSL whereas there are not many things left in the marketplace in the 80s that are genuine, high-quality and sincere. You’ve elevated the fashion world to a certain level.
I hope very much that’s true because we do what we feel, what we want. And when I say “we” it’s wrong. Yves does what he wants, that’s all. You have to understand that Yves has the final word. That’s the secret of this Saint Laurent success story.

In his work, Yves has never thought for one minute about the commercial aspect of what he does. That has left him completely free to create. Afterwards, I did what was necessary. We’ve never said, “Yves, this is the year of the sweater, we’ll do sweaters, it’s the year of the short pants, we’ll do short pants, blue is going to sell, we’ll do blue.” All of that belongs to the domain of marketing, and marketing has never passed through the door of this company.

Does the current political situation in France worry you?
I don’t like the political situation very much in France at the moment. But I didn’t like the previous government at all either. The current administration’s policies are very sympathique. Lots of dreams, which is very sympathique, but unrealistic. Even if President Mitterrand’s ideas were possible and acceptable, a nation cannot have a political system that is fundamentally the opposite of other countries in the modern world, where all countries fit together like a puzzle (except those in the East). We cannot be socialist when we’re locked into a capitalist economy. It simply isn’t possible.

Where do you think it will lead? Some people predict a catastrophe.
It could go that far but I don’t think it will continue. Maybe Monsieur Mitterrand will finish his seven year term. You have two solutions. Either Monsieur Mitterrand will continue in a fixed direction, which will ultimately explode, or he will change course.

Do you feel there’s a different mood in the United States? Do you like the way of life there?
I like it very much. I’m well aware of what can be said against life in America. But I see positive aspects there that are very important. When I was young, I was like everyone else – I dreamed of an egalitarian society. And then I understood that I was dreaming a bit. And I found that there are many flaws in America. But in the final analysis, there’s a deep respect for human rights. Of course, there are the Indians, I know, many things like that. But the opportunity to succeed in America does not exist here in France. And there’s a remarkable respect for others in America. I adore Americans.

When comparing the French and the Americans, what are the differences that strike you the most?
I think Americans are more intelligent than the French, much more cultivated than the French. Art is in New York, not in Paris. Painting is in New York, not in Paris. There’s nothing but fashion in Paris. The only interesting things in France are champagne, perfume and haute-couture. That’s all.

Since World War 2, France’s cultural stature, especially in art, has declined. How do you explain this erosion of cultural influence and innovation?
There was the war. That is, there was the war and what happened to the Jews. For example, in art there was the Ecole de Paris, where there was a large majority of Jews. During and after the war, the continent was drained of a very significant contribution and creative force. Voilà.

What mentality in France allowed such things to happen during the war? Has that mentality changed?
I hope so, but I’m not sure. I don’t have much confidence in the French on that subject. The French are racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic. You know the film Le Chagrin et la Pitié, a documentary film about French collaboration during the war. All of that is true. I was ten years old, but I was there.

And you’re not sure the French have changed in this regard?
No, not at all. It’s part of the French aggressiveness; there always has to be something. Today, there’s a new set of Jews; it’s the Arabs now. Then, the Jews, now, the Arabs. No, I don’t think things have changed at all.

You said earlier that French culture has declined and that all that’s left is champagne, perfume and fashion. Yet you still live in Paris.
Well, it’s not for the theatre, because theatre is better in England. It’s not for the musicals, because the French have never known how to do one. It’s not for the opera, because the French just produced four or five years of absolute catastrophes. It isn’t for the ballet, because it’s the worst ballet in the world. There’s a better ballet in Copenhagen, not to mention New York or Vienna. It isn’t for the painting, because there’s not a single art gallery in Paris showing anything interesting done in France. It isn’t for the photography, because all of the interesting photographers are German, like Helmut Newton, or American, like David Seidner, except for Cartier Bresson and he isn’t young.

What’s left? French newspapers are getting worse and worse. Le Monde has lost all interest and sense of objectivity. There’s only one interesting thing that has happened in France that is French and really new, and that’s the newspaper Libération. And that isn’t very much for an entire country.

When you really want to get away from your work, where do you go?
It depends. I love to be in Morocco. I don’t like big cities very much. But if I have to live in a city, of course, it’s Paris, and, after that, New York.

In terms of the business, one gets the impression that there’s a tremendous sense of loyalty among those working at Saint Laurent.
It’s true. And if there’s one main reason, it’s because of Yves and the admiration everyone has for him. All the people here are really devoted to him. That’s important. They have an admiration for Yves that’s a little Christ-like. Yves is like that.

Based on what’s reported in the media, Yves is not content.
It’s true. He’s not very happy, not at all. Absolutely not. But you know, the fashion business is sometimes extremely difficult. Most people don’t really understand that. First, you have to realize that it’s impossible to stop. If you are a writer or a painter, if you decide to rest, to go on vacation, it’s up to you. It’s just a question of money. And afterwards, if you want to come back on the scene, you just write a new book or paint a new painting. When you’re a fashion designer, it’s impossible. You can’t stop. You have to create four collections a year. And for Yves, it’s been non-stop for 25 years now.

Are you still considering the idea of creating a YSL department store in Paris?
Yes. And it will probably get done one day. The timing may depend on politics, but it’ll be here in Paris.

You once said that fashion franchising is like smoking a cigarette.
Absolutely. The more you puff on it, the more it consumes itself until you risk burning your fingers, and then there’s nothing left but a butt to throw away.

In the past, you’ve said you could never put the YSL name on chocolates or bidets or other products. Do you often receive offers?
Yes, almost every day. In life, it’s a question of balance. For example, Picasso had a real public relations side. He was photographed with feathers on his head, hats and everything. But his talent was bigger than all that. With Salvador Dali, it’s the opposite. He did a lot of things with cauliflowers, but his talent was not as great. So, Picasso is a great painter, Dali is a bad painter. You have to know how far you can go, as Jean Cocteau said.

As for us, as long as we have Yves, and as long as creativity is more important than the products that we sell under license, we will be alright. And when it becomes like other designers, who I prefer not to name, when products like chocolates, bidets and the rest become more important than creativity, then we will have lost. On the one hand you win, but on the other you lose. It’s really a question of balance.

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