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A Moroccan Passion: Pierre Bergé, Exclusive Last Interview

Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent. Courtesy Yves Saint Laurent Pierre Bergé Foundation

Vogue Arabia offers its condolences to Pierre Bergé’s family, friends, and close colleagues of the Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent Foundation. The French businessman was the right arm and founder of Yves Saint Laurent and was the man behind the two new Yves Saint Laurent museums in Paris and Marrakech, set to open next month. Pierre Bergé loved the Arab world. Morocco was his passion. Here, the exclusive last interview from Pierre Bergé, originally printed in the September 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia. 

Words by Aisha Zaman

Pierre Bergé is set to ignite the spectacular legacy of Yves Saint Laurent. In their beloved cities of Paris and Marrakech, two new museums celebrate one of the greatest couturiers of the 20th century.

For Pierre Bergé, life is about sharing : “Resources, culture, everything. I admire this idea. I am very delighted to have amassed, with Yves, one of the greatest private collections of the century,” he says. “I always believed that works of art do not belong to one individual, they belong to mankind. In time, people will say, ‘You really should know about these two men who lived in 20th century Paris.’ I only believe in people and memory. Only memories endure.” This year, Bergé’s extraordinary efforts to immortalize the heritage of Yves Saint Laurent will come to fruition with the opening of two museums – one in Paris and another in Marrakech.

Saint Laurent once said of Bergé, “He is a businessman, but he does business like an artist.” So begins the story of a collaboration between one of the world’s great couturiers and the French industrialist, who, with Saint Laurent, founded a fashion house that became an empire. In 1961, after securing American money, the shrewd entrepreneur established Yves Saint Laurent. Ten years later, he became its managing director, with a 50% stake.

Today, at age 86, Bergé remains a major figure in the cultural, political, and social fabric of Paris. Over the years, the generous patron of the arts has made numerous donations to art institutions such as the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Louvre, and Britain’s National Gallery. The new museums will be symbolic of a remarkable relationship: Saint Laurent the visionary and Bergé the figure behind the scenes, who encouraged his partner to recognize the full extent of his creativity.

Bergé asserts that Saint Laurent’s great vision was to take couture out from classy restaurants and fashionable apartments and bring it “to the street.” He was known for his unique perspective: he favored a relaxed yet elegant look and invited women’s trousers to make inroads into haute couture in the 1960s, at a time when they were still considered taboo. He presented the tuxedo suit for women within the context of the feminist movement and used non-European cultural references.

Pierre Bergé

Yves Saint Laurent in Place Djemaa El Fna Square. Photo Reginald Gray

Of Saint Laurent, Bergé says, “His greatest achievement was to have transcended an aesthetic field that had an impact on society. If indeed, as they say, Chanel gave women their liberty, then Yves gave them power.”

Le smoking (the tuxedo for women), the safari jacket, trouser suit, peacoat, and trench are proof of this. According to Bergé, Saint Laurent claimed fashion would be boring if the aim was to only dress the elite. Therefore, he invented the concept of ready-to-wear. Bergé emphasizes, “He transformed the profession of fashion into something essential to society.”

The pair’s lives were interwoven until the couturier’s death in 2008. A Paris auction of their art and antiques collection a year later generated a staggering €374 million for their eponymous foundation. Established in 2004, the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent amassed an archive of 5 000 haute couture garments, 15 000 accessories, and thousands of sketches by the late designer along with collection boards, design prototypes, and photographs. Together they transform memories into a vast, visual archive the designer created over his lifetime.

To house these archives and showcase them to the public, the foundation transformed the former Yves Saint Laurent Paris couture house into a museum. Nathalie Crinière, who created exhibitions for the Centre Pompidou and the upcoming Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed this space. For the layout, she worked alongside the renowned interior designer Jacques Grange, who fashioned the interiors for Saint Laurent’s 19th century mansion, where he duplicated a Monet painting on the living room walls, accentuated floors with vintage Turkish rugs, and installed towering crystal chandeliers and plush silk upholstered ottomans. The museum will offer a rare preview into the designer’s former studio. According to Bergé, “It will be exactly as it used to be at the time of the couture house: a space where all of Yves’ collections came to life. It’s a very emotional space because we are keeping the original layout.” Saint Laurent’s creations will thus be featured in the very place they originated.

The Marrakech museum’s unique architecture consists of a brickwork lattice conceived by French firm Studio KO. It is meant to look like threads in a fabric, inspired by patterns which Saint Laurent established throughout his work. It is built of terracotta, concrete, Moroccan stone, and marble. The site is an extraordinary cultural center. Inside the low-rise 4 000sqm building, there is an exhibition space showcasing Saint Laurent’s work alongside a 130-seat auditorium, a bookshop, a café, and a research library with more than 5 000 books on fashion, Arabic history, the Berbers of North Africa, geography, literature, and botany.

Pierre Bergé

Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech. Photo courtesy Yves Saint Laurent Museum

Although born and raised in Algeria, it was Morocco that became Saint Laurent’s home, away from his Paris residence. It became an inspiration that would last throughout his career. Saint Laurent and Bergé first visited the Maghreb country in 1966. At that time, Marrakech was becoming a gathering place for an elite jet-set. They met Talitha Getty, the young wife of oil heir John Paul Getty Jr, who had just had his 19th century villa decorated by Bill Willis (who would later decorate Saint Laurent’s various properties). Getty threw non-stop lavish parties, inviting many high-profile friends such as Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, and Marianne Faithfull.

Bewitched by the exotic setting and energized by the creative people that frequented it, Bergé and Saint Laurent bought Dar el Hanch (the House of the Snake), located in the medina close to Jemaa el Fna square. “We fell madly in love with Marrakech and we bought an amazing house,” recalls Bergé. They soon began shuttling between France and Morocco. Friends often joined them: Marisa Berenson, Hélène Rochas, and Loulou de la Falaise, among others. Evenings were enjoyed in an inspiring Arabian Nights setting characterized by oriental carpets and mashrabiyas. The glow of lanterns illuminated the pools lined with mosaics and the scent of jasmine wafted in the air. Bergé shares that he and Saint Laurent were taken with Islamic art from their rst visit to Morocco. “We loved Arab artisans and Yves enjoyed walking in the souk and Jemaa el Fna square.” The sale of their Islamic art collection in the salons of the Palace Es Saadi in Marrakech set a record in the field when it fetched US$1.6 million.

It is at the Majorelle Garden in Marrakech that Bergé, one of the great living tastemakers of our time,
shares, “My bond with Morocco, which has become a second home to me, is profoundly emotional. I have spent half my life here.” Saint Laurent returned here to rest after each show in Paris, remembers Quito Fierro, the secretary-general of the Majorelle Garden, which now houses the Berber Museum.
“All his collections were sketched and created here, in the garden. Here, he would take his imaginary trips to Russia, India, China, or Japan.” So enamored were they with the garden that in 1980, Saint Laurent and Bergé acquired it and its adjoining residence, Villa Oasis, (designed in the 1930s by French orientalist painter Jacques Majorelle), to save it from demolition. Many critics contend that the library in Villa Oasis, conceived by Bill Willis, was the interior designer’s most outstanding room. Willis called it “the prettiest space” he created in his 50-year career. Saint Laurent said it was his favorite room in the world. Every inch of the walls, crenelated arch ceiling, and book cases is covered in handcarved and handpainted motifs reported to have taken Moroccan artisans nine months to complete. The furniture – upholstered in kilim textiles – and accessories are an enchanting mix of Napoleon III and orientalist pieces, while oil paintings by Charles-Théodore Frère line the walls.

Saint Laurent loved the city that reminded him of his childhood and youth in Oran, Algeria. In 1983, he said, “The boldness seen since then in my work, I owe to Morocco, to its forceful harmonies, to its audacious combinations, to the fervor of its creativity. This culture became mine, but I wasn’t satisfied with absorbing it; I took, transformed, and adapted it.” He considered Marrakech to be an endless source of inspiration. “I still dream of its unique colors; a vision in blue.” When Saint Laurent died at the age of 71 in 2008, from the pulpit, Bergé said, “Someday, I will join you beneath the palm trees in Morocco.” His ashes, according to his wishes, were scattered in the garden of his home in Marrakech, a last testament to his love for the country.

More than ever, Bergé is mindful of these words. “Indeed, I have devoted a great part of my life to Yves and his legacy. The museums will not only preserve his memory – they are a homage to the man and his genius, which had no limits. And so continues the adventure we began long ago, when we did not know what fate had in store for us.” ☐

Pierre Bergé

Pierre Bergé at the Musée Saint Laurent, Paris, April 5, 2017.

The Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris opens October 3 during Paris Fashion Week. Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech opens October 19.

Originally printed in the September 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia. 

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