Over a year after the legendary couturier's death, fans everywhere are flocking to memorials. Robert Murphy interviews longtime YSL companion and biographer Pierre Bergé and reports on the stirring tributes.
Paris is seized with Yves Saint Laurent mania just over a year after the celebrated couturier's death.
A massive retrospective devoted to the late designer's work has drawn capacity crowds to one of the city's most prestigious museums, the Petit Palais, ever since it opened this month. Lines begin to form about an hour before opening every morning and people are turned away in the evening because the museum can't accommodate more than 1,700 visitors per day.
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Meanwhile, a slew of books on Saint Laurent, who died June 1, 2008, from brain cancer, have been published. They deal with every aspect of designer's turbulent and celebrated life, from his frequent bouts of depression and substance abuse to his enduring relationship with his longtime business partner and lover, Pierre Bergé.
French pop star Alain Chamfort has even recorded an album recounting Saint Laurent's life in song, accompanied by a book, Une Vie Saint Laurent, (Albin Michel), penned by this author.
The museum exhibit is the largest ever of Saint Laurent's dresses. It underscores the diversity of the couturier's achievements and wide ranging influence. From his first collection at 21 for the house of Christian Dior, where he succeeded the master after Dior's unexpected death, to his last show a half century later, Saint Laurent defined the modern woman's wardrobe by giving her inimitable style, power, and chic.
He put women in trouser suits when it was still subversive, created the opulent hippie de luxe style and draped sumptuous gowns inspired by artists such as Jean Cocteau and Piet Mondrian that lifted the art of couture to new heights. At the exhibit, his fetish smoking suits—or tuxedoes for women—occupy an entire wall, floor to ceiling.
“I knew I had to write something on Yves because Yves was a celebrated and mythical personage,” said Pierre Bergé. “I knew that other people would write a bunch of bull.”
Saint Laurent's countless contributions to fashion are uncontestable.
They are expertly charted in the show of more than 300 dresses that fill the museum's soaring exhibit halls. But even if the show paints a clear picture of Saint Laurent's pioneering work, the French public has shown a similar fascination with his personal life.
After all, from his early twenties until his death at 71 he was considered one of France's most famous men with plenty of glitzy friends to match, including Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and Catherine Deneuve, whom he dressed for many films, including director Luis Bunuel's stylish movie about bourgeois depravity, Belle de Jour.
But even if many aspects of Saint Laurent's life have been chewed over for years, Pierre Bergé, who not only lived with the designer for many years but also helped him to build his fashion house into the template of modern luxury and success, still believes that Saint Laurent is misunderstood.
For that reason, he wrote his own book about Saint Laurent, Lettres à Yves, or Letters to Yves (Gallimard), that is out this month, which he hopes will set the record straight.
Bergé, who also owns an auction house and a chain of caviar restaurants, declined to write pure biography.
"I knew I had to write something on Yves because Yves was a celebrated and mythical personage," said Bergé. "I knew that other people would write a bunch of bull. The other biographies don't get things right. I was a capital witness to his extraordinary life. I am the only one to know the truth."
Bergé's epistolary begins with the elocution he delivered at Saint Laurent's funeral on June 5, 2008, and, though it hits on many sensitive scenes, follows a linear story.
"I knew I was incapable of writing pure biography," he said. "Yves's absence is a big thing in my life and I needed to talk to him."
One long letter deals with Saint Laurent's tumultuous affair with a man Bergé refers to as J. de B.
People familiar with Paris fashion folklore readily recognize Bergé is talking about Saint Laurent's liaison in the 1970s to the late Parisian dandy, Jacques de Bascher, who also carried on with Saint Laurent's bitter rival, designer Karl Lagerfeld.
Bergé makes no effort to disguise his distaste for Bascher. "I had to address that period," said Bergé. "These letters to Yves couldn't have been written without saying one, that I love him, and two that there were very difficult moments during our relationship."
Another difficult moment includes a scene during which Saint Laurent, notoriously depressed, tried to throw himself from a window at the Pierre hotel in New York. Bergé said he prevented the designer from plunging to his death.
"There are so many false things said about Yves," said Berge. "People think that Saint Laurent was reserved and that Bergé was this bulldog who forced him to do things that he didn't want to. That I unhinged him. That's far from the truth. I always did what Yves wished me to do.
"People think Yves was shy," he continued. "That is totally false. Yves had nerves of steel. He was audacious and provocative."
As an example, Bergé mentioned the time Saint Laurent went to former Dior Homme designer Hedi Slimane's men's fashion show. Slimane, who had formerly designed at Saint Laurent, decamped to Dior when former Gucci designer Tom Ford, allied with French group PPR, bought Saint Laurent and took over as head designer.
Saint Laurent's animosity toward Ford was widely documented by the media. Saint Laurent's presence at the show was widely interpreted as a public slap in the face to Ford as well as French billionaire Francois Pinault, who owns PPR and Gucci. Saint Laurent sat near Bernard Arnault, owner of French luxury group LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, who is Pinault's bitter rival.
"People, including Pinault, thought that I pressured Yves into going to the show," said Bergé. "They said, 'The manipulative Bergé has got Yves into trouble again.'
"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Bergé. "A couple of days before the show, Yves told me he wanted to go. Initially, I thought, no, you can't do that. But then I knew he was right. He wanted to tell Tom Ford and Pinault, to stuff it. He wanted to say, 'I remain Yves Saint Laurent. You can't take away my liberty and my strength.'"
Robert Murphy is a Paris-based writer and art dealer. He is the author of The Private World of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé (Vendome) and Une Vie Saint Laurent (Albin Michel). His work has appeared in W, WWD, Details, The World of Interiors, AD, and the International Herald Tribune. He runs RCM Galerie in Paris, which specializes in 20th-century furniture and post-war European sculpture.