After 22 Years, the Main Man in Yves Saint Laurent's Hectic Life Is Still Pierre Berge
04/19/1982 at 01:00 AM EST
"Yves, chéri," beckons Pierre Bergé" as he guides his painfully shy, high-strung partner toward the lights. Bergé, 51, then leads Yves Saint Laurent, 45, into the SRO crowd. Lord Snowdon, Margaux Hemingway, Paloma Picasso, Marie-Hélène de Rothschild and every other star in the haute couture cosmos have come to the gilt ballroom of Paris' Hotel Inter-Continental to catch Yves' 72nd collection and to pay homage to the master on his 20th anniversary in the rag trade. While cameramen jostle to snap Yves in this latest moment of triumph, Bergé remains contentedly in his shadow, as he has for 22 years. More than anyone else, it is Bergé, Saint Laurent's longtime housemate and right hand in business, who has transformed the retiring but brilliant designer into fashion's reigning monarch.
The fast-moving Bergé is responsible for, among other things, constructing a $200 million-a-year ready-to-wear empire with outlets in 27 countries around the world. There are Rive Gauche boutiques in 15 cities across the U.S., including New York, Philadelphia, Washington and San Francisco. The YSL label is also affixed to Opium, the perfume that sells for a heady $150 an ounce, not to mention a new men's fragrance called Kouros ($22 per ounce and a half) and 50 other products from eyeglasses and umbrellas to blue jeans and underwear. Royalties from licensing agreements net the company $35 million a year, second only to Pierre Cardin. Recently, however, Bergé" declined one firm's invitation to put the YSL logo on tires. "I'm against designer chocolates, wines and cheese," sniffs Pierre. "We're letting Cardin do that."
Bergé's reputation as a dealmaker is widely acknowledged in the industry. "He's a brilliant man," observes fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland. "His eyes and ears are everywhere." Women's Wear Daily editor John Fairchild describes Bergé as "a wonderful devil. Quick and brilliant—a bouncing ball. But don't underestimate Saint Laurent's business sense," cautions Fair-child. "He lives with a calculator on his desk too." Yves and Pierre share equally in the company's profits.
Bergé has been allying himself with trend setters ever since, at 17, he left his birthplace of Oléron, an island off the west coast of France. He headed for Paris in hopes of becoming a painter, but instead latched onto Garry Davis, the American peace activist. In 1948, along with Albert Camus, Bergé spent a night in jail after helping stage one of Davis' Citizens of the World peace rallies. Next he linked up with Jean Cocteau. "It was intimate, a family affair," he says of their friendship. Bergé continued to hone his promotional skills, representing artist Bernard Buffet from 1950 to 1958. Until he took over, boasts Bergé, Buffet was "known but not celebrated."
Bergés fateful meeting with Saint Laurent came at a dinner party in 1958. At the time, the designer had just completed his first collection for the House of Dior. "I believed in Yves from the moment I met him," says Bergé. "I knew that this strange person, so introverted and silent, was a great talent." The day Saint Laurent lost his job at Dior to his rival Marc Bohan, he and Bergé decided to start their own couture house. "We didn't have a penny," Bergé remembers. "But if I had waited for money, I would never have done anything. I know how to swim without a life jacket."
Bergé attributes his success with Yves to the fact that his business is "half artistic. I couldn't have done it selling bagels or tuna." Nevertheless, Bergé is careful to stick to business and lets Saint Laurent handle the creative end. "I don't interfere with Yves," he says. "He can spend as much as he wants. I would not tell him to use cheaper materials." As for the designer, he depends on Bergé's unflappable nature. "I've never seen Pierre confused or upset," marvels Saint Laurent. "He's very stable and pulls me out of myself." In that, Bergé has his hands full; Yves suffers frequently from depression and has had nervous breakdowns, most recently one in 1980 that sent him to a psychotherapist.
During the week Yves and Pierre spend many daytime and evening hours apart—Saint Laurent prefers to stay home while Berg§, a night owl, spins off in his chauffeured BMW. Bergé also enjoys piloting a five-seat chopper, L'Ecureuil (The Squirrel), around France, and he has at his disposal a Learjet parked at Le Bourget Airport. Of their relationship, Fairchild says, "They are a team. Bergé jumps into a helicopter and pilots it, Saint Laurent falls asleep. They are two very different people, and it works." Since 1979 Yves and Pierre have been in the throes of redecorating an eight-bedroom chateau in Deauville. They also have a villa in Marrakesh.
In the midst of all this luxe, Bergé is keeping a close watch on France's fumbling economy. The franc continues to weaken, and he fears the Socialist government of François Mitterrand could hurt French industry. Although he believes fashion is the last bastion when it comes to nationalization, he shrugs, "If we can't stay in this country, we'll go somewhere else. To move the house of Yves Saint Laurent, all we need is Yves, me and a pencil. In fact, we can even leave the pencil behind."