Rushka Bergman, the pint-size Serbian fashion queen and style muse to many of Hollywood’s leading men, walked into Pastis before noon on a Tuesday dressed for a night on the town. She wore all black— Balenciaga cocktail dress, oversize Balenciaga leather varsity jacket with an embroidered dog on the lapel—plus bright red lips and bright red studded booties, a tribute to her great friend and lost soul mate Michael Jackson.
Not so long ago Bergman and Jackson, whom she styled for the last three years of his life, were singing opera to each other over the phone on Christmas morning and working with fashion’s biggest names, including Balmain’s Christophe Decarnin, Dior Homme’s Kris Van Assche, and Tom Ford, on outfits for the “This Is It” tour that never was. Now Bergman has a very different gig. Among other projects, this fall she is helping reinvent Bebe.
It takes a classy broad to clean up a trashy brand, and that’s why Bergman, a contributing fashion editor at L’Uomo Vogue who has styled dozens of covers for the book, has lent her talents to Bebe, Kourtney Kardashian’s favorite downmarket retailer and the outfitter of choice for teen moms everywhere.
Bergman debuted her first collection with the brand at the Bortolami art gallery in Chelsea on Monday, a little “teaser,” as she calls it, of the sharper cuts and finer fabrics she plans to work gradually into the mall-chain’s polyester aesthetic—gradually, so as not to “scare” the brand’s loyal fan base. Early reviews were good. Bergman was not surprised.
“It was so bad, so cheesy,” Bergman says of Bebe before her. “It could not be worse.”
She took her inspiration for “Bebe Black” from the Queensboro Bridge, whose diamond pattern she noticed while sitting in traffic between her Long Island City apartment and her studio in SoHo. She did the collection in two days. “Imagine what I could have done if I actually had time,” she says.
Bergman’s immodesty comes off as charming, not vain, in part because the praise she heaps on everyone else in her orbit is so much greater than the compliments she reserves for herself. Jackson was a genius—“jen-eee-ooos,” in her heavily accented English—as are Hillary Clinton (whom she has styled), Steven Spielberg (ditto), Hedi Slimane, Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Balenciaga designer Nicholas Ghesquiere, Jil Sander, Barack Obama, Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani (“I love her”), and Chelsea Clinton (“I hope she will be president someday”), among many others.
Ask Bergman her age and she smiles through those red lips and says, “28, always.” She is not 28, nor is she trying to be. “I think my wrinkles are cute,” she says. Jackson ordered her never to get Botox. “Botox destroyed the soul of the people,” she says. A child who grew up under communism and studied economics at the University of Belgrade, she found her confidence later in life and cannot understand why anyone would want to be in their 20s. “Proudly I can say that when I was 20 I was too naive,” she says.
Bergman was born in Serbia, to a successful land-owning couple who spoiled their three daughters. She has been married twice, for four years apiece, to a diplomat in Ghana and a very handsome American. She does not think much about marrying again. She likes children but never wanted any of her own. Her mother, with whom she is close, continues to be baffled by her work in the fashion business, even now that she’s gotten the job with Bebe.
The Bebe job appealed to her for several reasons. First, she hit it off with Bebe owner Manny Mashouf, who gamely endured her withering criticism of his brand. Second, it was a challenge. How hard is it, really, to put Dior Homme on Michael Fassbender? But to take a label with 600 retail outlets and a bad reputation and turn it into something fashionable gals will wear—that was interesting. “If Jil Sander can do Uniqlo, why can’t Rushka Bergman work for Bebe?” is how she puts it. And finally, Bergman, who has a bubbly, childlike enthusiasm about most things, is down on the fashion business these days.
“Even designers have lost their voice,” she says. “Everything is mass. Everybody copies everybody.” Bergman prefers the classics: “Dostoyevsky is my favorite. I just read five times The Idiot. I love, of course, Freud. Herman Hesse. Citizen Kane.” She is skeptical about the ascent of fashion bloggers in the design world.
“There is room for bloggers, but they are not fashion directors,’ she says, pounding the table. “This is my statement, big time.”
She is turned off by all the pop stars dabbling in fashion. She hopes celebrities will stop trying to design clothes. What does she think of Lady Gaga?
“I do not think.”
If she could style anyone she would choose Queen Elizabeth and Clint Eastwood. The former she would put in more flattering fabrics and a wider array of colors. The latter would look good in anything. He is another jen-eee-oos.
But none approaches the talent of her greatest professional love, Jackson, whom she describes as being “from a different planet.” They bonded initially over their love of 16th-century art. He teased her because she didn’t have any of his music on his iPod. She worked for him without a contract, saw him naked plenty of times (she vouches for his skin condition), adored his energy, and was shocked by his death. “He gave me only his beauty,” she says, and shielded her from the anesthesia abuse that ultimately killed him. Her other major project is pulling together a museum exhibit showcasing Jackson’s collection of couture, a massive endeavor and her great passion.
She is turned off by all the pop stars dabbling in fashion. She hopes celebrities will stop trying to design clothes. What does she think of Lady Gaga? “I do not think.”
These days, Bergman is also captivated by technology—she shows me a picture of Jackson’s three children, Paris in an AC/DC T-shirt, that a friend just texted to her iPhone. She shoots videos now and posts them on Vimeo. At the ripe old age 28, she feels a momentum building.
“I don’t know where I’m going,” she says, “but I know I have to go faster.”