The Making of Fashion Legend Yves Saint Laurent
A new French documentary seeks to demystify the famous fashion designer by exploring his "creation story" and his love affair with longtime partner, Pierre Bergé.
“There’s something heroic about Yves Saint Laurent,” marveled Jalil Lespert, the film director of Yves Saint Laurent. His directorial début, starring the young French YSL-lookalike Pierre Niney, was released in theaters throughout France last week. The director spoke with Pierre Bergé, the late Saint Laurent’s business/life partner, on Friday at Colette’s Water Bar in Paris before a packed-to-the-gills audience of fashion acolytes.
Saint Laurent is indeed considered heroic in the fashion world—in France, he is a national icon well beyond the monde de la mode. His angular cheeks, thick glasses, and carefully combed hair incarnate elegance, vision, and, unfortunately, personal agony. (As Stephen Holden wrote of Saint Laurent’s depression in The New York Times: “To be surrounded by the most concentrated beauty the world has to offer and yet be chronically depressed is to confront the sad reality that material bounty may bring fleeting pleasure but nothing resembling peace of mind.”)
Bergé, who anchored Yves’s exceptional aesthetic and tempestuous nature for half a century, objected that his approval was necessary in any way to Lespert’s film being made. “A public figure doesn’t need to give permission,” he said, remarking a bit grandly that no one would ask Sarkozy or Obama for their OK. This statement isn’t strictly true, however. Bergé has ultimately associated himself with Jalil Lespert, but not with a second biopic, Saint Laurent, set for a spring release by another French director, Bertrand Bonello. (Bonello’s cast includes Gaspard Ulliel as the designer, Léa Seydoux as muse Loulou de la Falaise, and Willem Dafoe as Andy Warhol).
Moreover, Bergé did intervene—to better the film—by lending vintage garments to the production and giving Lespert access to the original contexts in which YSL’s looks were conceived, created, and shown.
Still, Bergé insisted that he did not get overly involved or censure the film in any way. It’s “his truth” Bergé said of Lespert’s film, and “his interpretation” (Lespert described the process as “appropriating the destiny” of Saint Laurent). “Creations are more beautiful than reality,” Bergé pronounced, elaborating that fictions enable one to transgress, to cross beyond. He later cited Saint Laurent’s Russian-inspired collection as an example of the value of creative liberty, revealing that Saint Laurent had never been to Russia until years after the collection had been made.
Lespert said that he wanted to make his film both a “creation story” and a “love story.” Lespert initially came upon the love story by way of a French documentary L’Amour Fou (Mad Love, released in the U.S. in 2011). The documentary pressed rewind on the Saint Laurent/Bergé relationship, tracing their history back from the 2009 Christie’s auction of their art collection in the wake of Saint Laurent’s death.
Lespert’s film, on the other hand, concludes early in Saint Laurent’s life, in 1976, after a major turning point in the couple’s relationship. Lespert stated that he believed in “les grands sentiments”—larger than life sentiments—and that this film was a testament to such. Bergé appreciated that the film didn’t portray “one victim/one hero” but rather more forgivingly “two victims and two heroes.”
While Lespert sought to “demystify” the heralded and iconic designer, the discussion around the film in fact perpetuated a certain sense of deification. “He was never swayed by anyone or anything,” Bergé stated doggedly of his partner. “Jamais, jamais, jamais.” Perhaps this is true—Saint Laurent was, after all, the first living fashion designer whose work was shown in a museum, like an artist. But it’s this kind of absolutism that makes designers seem mythological to the point of infallibility.
As for fashion today, Bergé stated his opinion in no uncertain terms. He feels that Zara and H&M most accurately represent today’s fashion in the constant renewal these brands offer, impervious to following the “stupid seasons.” Bergé noted that Saint Laurent was not against fast fashion, that he regretted not having invented denim, the most democratic fabric; moreover, he wished he’d done something akin to Prisunic (a vaguely French version of Target, which has since been integrated into the chain Monoprix). But Bergé remained brittle about the world of high fashion, emphatically decrying today’s “pseudo-créateurs.” When asked the inevitable question about the brand’s name change from “Yves Saint Laurent” to “Saint Laurent Paris,” he dismissed the matter, proclaiming that there is no “Rive Gauche” (Left Bank) and “no haute couture” to preserve. He said he “admired” Hedi Slimane—the easily-irascible RTW designer currently at the helm of the brand’s women’s collections—but that there is simply no one in the world who can follow in Yves’s footsteps.