Unhappy Bergé

Unauthorized ‘Saint Laurent’ Biopic: Quel Scandale!

Threats of a lawsuit, denied access to the designer's archives, and re-creating two collections from scratch couldn't stop a new biopic of Yves Saint Laurent from premiering at Cannes.

Orange Studio

It might come as a surprise in a film about a deceased fashion designer who spent vast amounts of his life thinking about couture, but one of the most, if not the most, memorable scenes in the new biopic, Saint Laurent, shows a young Yves Saint Laurent completely naked as he walks towards his partner, Pierre Bergé (clad in a black satin dressing gown that reveals his tanned behind), before the young lovers jump on the bed for a romp.

Despite the provocative nature of this and other racy sex scenes in the film, which was directed by Bertrand Bonello (of Le Pornographe fame) and premiered at the Festival de Cannes on Saturday, the real controversy surrounding the production has to do with the clothing. What else!

Early on, the Bonello production incurred the wrath of Saint Laurent’s long-term partner Pierre Bergé, who threatened in WWD to sue the film if it copied any of the designer’s outfits—a bit hard to avoid when making a coming-of-age movie about YSL’s life and work. The filmmakers, on their part, have accused Bergé of distributing letters to parties associated with the film to try to stop it.

To this end, Bergé has refused to allow Bonello’s team to consult the brand’s archives. He also publically endorsed another biopic, Yves Saint Laurent, which debuted in January and was directed by Jalil Lespert. The Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent lent the rival film a reported 77 vintage outfits and Bergé helped conduct a scene depicting the legendary 1976 Ballet Russes fashion show. The resulting headlines in the French press declared war between the two films.

Although Eric Altmayer, producer of the Bonello film, said they always intended to go their own way with Saint Laurent, they have had to deal with more obstacles than they imagined in the process.

“We approached Bonello with the idea of not going under Bergé’s direction because Bergé is extremely protective of Saint Laurent,” Altmayer said. “Bergé later went crazy and launched an attack to try and destroy our film. He sent letters to people involved in the finance, distribution, and television rights, legal letters telling them not to support our movie. I think the other movie is part of his reaction. I am sure it was initiated in reaction against our film, so it was very difficult.”

Bergé’s refusal to work with the Saint Laurent team meant that the film’s costume designer, Anaïs Romand, had quite a task on her hands. Romand had to create the looks for two fashion show scenes from scratch, including the scandalous 1971 spring/summer catwalk, which was accused of being pro-Nazi.

“The House of Yves St. Laurent did not collaborate at all on this project, and the Foundation Pierre Bergé-Saint Laurent prevented us from having access to its archives and haute couture collections,” Romand said. “We had to reconstruct proportions, re-create colors, and find materials drawing upon publicity photos of the time.”

Romand re-created the fashion shows by looking at the original press coverage and photos. “I had no access to the original dresses and archives, because the Fondation didn’t want the Bonello film to get any help. I had just four authentic outfits from the 1976 collection,” she said, referring to the Ballet Russes show re-created for the film.

According to Altmayer, the producers had an agreement with Francois-Henri Pinault, the CEO of Kering, the company that owns the Yves Saint Laurent brand, to reproduce images of the clothing for cinematic purposes. “Bergé’s threats were not my concern, as I was backed up by my production team telling me we could represent Saint Laurent’s style and clothes with the means we had for a cinematographic fiction, as long as we didn’t harm Saint Laurent’s image,” Romand said regarding the arrangement.

Romand had at her disposal a limited number of outfits from a passionate collector, Olivier Chatenet, who came to the aid of the production. Beyond his contributions, Romand had to re-create all of the needed pieces in her atelier, as well as all of the accessories.

The Bonello film focuses on the high point of Saint Laurent’s career, from 1965 to 1976. During this period, Yves Saint Laurent created his first smoking suit, caused a scandal with his 1971 Spring-Summer 40s collection, and moved his couture house to Avenue Marceau.

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Romand, in turn, had to create a number of looks that YSL produced during this time, and on a much smaller budget.

“Anaïs was like the head of a real couture studio,” Altmayer said.