Pierre Bergé tells us about Yves Saint Laurent and his affairs of the heart
At the last Saint Laurent Paris runway show, Hedi Slimane presented a red coat shaped in a heart as a tribute to the designer. Pierre Bergé tells us about this symbol that Yves Saint Laurent reinvented endlessly, and their love story.
When Yves Saint Laurent disappeared in 2008, fashion designers and the general public alike reacted in unison, as if one giant heart had suddenly been broken. Because beneath his rigorous classicism, lay poetry, seduction, emotion and even the cult of love that underpinned the couturier’s tremendous oeuvre, from his partnership with Pierre Bergé to the famous crystal brooch he pinned onto one of his designs in every haute couture collection.
“Without an elegance of the heart, there is no elegance”, Yves Saint Laurent liked to say. Drowning in a flood of the couturier’s endless maxims, this sentence, that could have easily slipped by unnoticed, is a lens through which we can view the work of the “last of the classics”. Throughout his 40 years as head of the house that carried his name, Yves Saint Laurent made the heart motif and the eternal theme of love, a veritable signature, determined to “loosen up” an elegance inherited from the past with his modern take on the fashion of his era, caught between sincerity and a sense of provocation.
It all began in 1962 with the first collection from his newly born couture house, and a brooch in the shape of an asymmetric heart inlaid with red gem stones, which would accompany him forever like a talisman. "It's a very large jewel that’s 12cm high and 8cm wide, conceived by a costume jeweller of the time named Roger Scemama,” explains Pierre Bergé, who receives us in his offices at the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent. It was pinned like any other jewel onto a dress. But while Yves would retain no other piece of jewellery from one collection to the next, he kept this heart. He even had it made again [another version, worn as a pendant, started appearing from 1979].
Beyond a simple good luck charm, this jewel became one of the first codes of the house of Yves Saint Laurent, and more than that, an intention, a vision of elegance in the wake of Mademoiselle Chanel, herself devoted to costume jewellery. “I want to make daring accessories, ‘couture’ jewels that are so much more spiritual than real ones,” the young man declared in 1954 at his first interview with the press after he’d won the International Woolmark Prize. Against the precious, the bourgeois, against the legacy of haute couture clothing, Yves Saint Laurent was already preaching an allure, seduction, spirit and emotion. A testament to the first steps of genius, the brooch in the shape of a heart, is carefully preserved today in the collections at the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.
While the other example of this brooch has become part of the collections at the FIT Museum in New York, the original heart gave birth to a genuine lineage. “We made copies with much smaller dimensions,” adds Pierre Bergé. “We made little brooches, pendants and even badges. The heart was an important symbol for Yves Saint Laurent. It is very present in his creations, and also in his drawings.” Prints, jewellery, compact cases and even a postal stamp… numerous objects branded by Yves Saint Laurent use the symbol of the heart in a myriad of forms.
In this formal fantasy, there plays out an encounter between the artistic traditions that nourished the imagination of the couturier and his unique capacity to so willingly embrace kitsch. The evocation of love, with his words as much as with his collections, succeeds in diverting any romantic clichés.
It’s Pierre Bergé who takes care of the posterity of the Saint Laurent oeuvre, who’s been organising since the 1980s the first exhibitions in museums, and who had the idea to create the foundation that bears their two names and is dedicated to the heritage of the couturier. He who relentlessly insisted upon the social importance of Yves Saint Laurent’s fashion that was driven, he says, by a very sincere love of women. He, who in his book, Lettres à Yves, speaks to his companion posthumously like this: “You could have sunk in fashion but you never slept, you were always loyal to your own style. You were right, because that style is one we see everywhere. Maybe not on the runways, but on the streets of the entire world. Your complicity with women, that you claimed so loud and clear, and of which you were so proud, never faded. With Chanel – because if one name should be cited today, and one only, then it has to be hers – Chanel who decreed you her successor, you were the most important couturier of the 20th century. Her of the first half, and you the second.” This remarkable love story is inseparable from the history of the house of Yves Saint Laurent and its success.
“I don’t think there is any other way to love people than to love them the way they are, with all that conscience, with acceptance. With Yves, the roles were perfectly clear right from the start. I loved him for his fragility, for his difficulty to comprehend daily life. So I was forever endorsing a paternal role. And neither of us were fools, I knew he was playing a role and he knew I was playing a role. That’s how it was.” It all began at the first catwalk show presented by Yves Saint Laurent, newly appointed artistic director at Christian Dior, in January 1958 on the premises of the house at 30 Avenue Montaigne. Among the guests backstage that day lining up to congratulate the 21 year-old, was Pierre Bergé, then partner of painter Bernard Buffet. A few days later, Marie-Louise Bousquet, director of the French edition of Harper’s Bazaar orchestrated a meeting between Yves Saint Laurent and Bernard Buffet at a dinner, to which Pierre Bergé had also been invited. “During that dinner, I felt something important happening. That’s what it’s like. I don’t know if it was what people call love at first sight, but whatever it was it changed my life forever.” In 1960 Yves Saint Laurent, called up to fight in the Algerian war but then instantly discharged for depression, was fired by Christian Dior while he was recuperating at the Val-de-Grâce Hospital. Together the two men rapidly hatched their project to found a house of couture. Conceived by the two of them, the house of Yves Saint Laurent completed the welding of the two partner’s destiny, who although would end up over the years occupying separate apartments, each one living their own lives, never properly left each other. “I always said that it was for the couture house that I never left him, but I didn’t leave him because I couldn’t leave him. It’s true that if you look at other considerations, I knew that if I did leave him it would be the end of the house, but worse than that, the end of him. There is nothing pretentious in me saying that. And if I left him, what would I have done? You don’t leave people like that. Well, I don’t.”
The man who closed the eyes of his eternal companion on his death bed on June 1st 2008 gave himself the mission of devoting his life to perpetuating a myth. What was the destiny he invented? Director of a legacy? Witness to the mystery of creation? “If Pierre Bergé didn’t exist, I’d have to invent him. He generates business like an artist. And in that, he is unique,” Yves Saint Laurent said of him after the presentation of his first collection at his haute couture house. Pierre Bergé more willingly explains today that the groundwork for the foundation that bears both their names was based on their love. “I know that the relationship between him and I allowed all of that, you’re very being here today in this office. So I will do everything to preserve his oeuvre. This foundation will become the Yves Saint Laurent Museum; his studio will be part of the tour. I’m building another museum in Marrakesh. I have 5000 original garments tried by Yves Saint Laurent on the mannequin chosen by Yves Saint Laurent and sent onto the catwalk by Yves Saint Laurent. I don’t buy clothes from clients because they’re no longer faithful to his original intentions. The fabrics, the colour, the length of the sleeves, the neckline was often modified to suit their personal desires. Yves Saint Laurent’s haute couture didn’t survive Yves Saint Laurent, the investors that bought the house had the intelligence to turn the corner I had wanted to turn [when the Gucci Group bought the house in 1999, Saint Laurent and Bergé retained exclusive control of the haute couture, and when Yves Saint Laurent decided to retire in 2002, the house of haute couture closed its doors]. Yves Saint Laurent started his own story and wrote the end himself. This is why it’s really so exceptional.”
By Delphine Roche
Check out the full article in the Numéro Homme from March 2016, available in newsstands and on iPad.
Yves Saint Laurent in his studio at the 45, avenue Marceau in Paris in 1986. Behind him are some of the “Love” cards he drew and designed.