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Letters to Yves

Letters to Yves

Pierre Bergé, Letters to Yves, Éditions Jardin Majorelle, $15.95, 108 pp. 2011

Over and over again, while I was reading this deceptively slim volume of letters written to the late couturier Yves Saint Laurent, I found myself scribbling in the margin, “So French!” For example: “I tried leaving you, knowing how to love elsewhere, but all paths led me back to you.” Or: “There’s no doubt that searching for someone means searching for oneself.” Or: “To love, you need to forget everything, which is what I’ve never stopped doing.” After a while, I found myself losing interest in Saint Laurent, my putative subject, and becoming increasingly fascinated with the author, the couturier’s partner in business and affection, Pierre Bergé.

Bergé read the first epistle aloud at Saint Laurent’s funeral on June 5, 2008, and the series ends just over a year later. (The book was published in France in 2010. Bergé died last September, and the translation appeared in December.) Some letters run several pages; others are brief, anguished. March 2, 2009, the entire text: “Kikou, I miss you terribly.” The conventional memoir of grief moves through psychological milestones as the author recovers (see The Year of Magical Thinking). Bergé instead recounts the sale of their stuff: More than 700 objects from their collection were auctioned in 2009, for a record-breaking $484 million. [1] Dear reader, sometimes literal objects outstrip language: you must see the Senufo bird sculpture, simultaneously “primitive” and “modern,” that lived in the couple’s Paris apartment. [2] More than a testament to the designer’s taste or a potential key to his work, it—and the rest of the objects—symbolize Bergé and Saint Laurent’s relationship. No one understands their connection, Bergé writes: “If only these people, the journalists and others, knew that sex was the real driving force, and not art! It was sex, and my forcing you to discover it, that was the motor for: our love, our fashion house, our collection, our lives!”

The book’s intimate tone is both stark and startling. Though the complete story is not here—nor is it expected—Bergé’s sly prose can be terrifyingly honest. Any reader curious about the man Bergé calls “J. de B.,” who “dragged you down to a hell from which you would never return” must consult The Beautiful Fall, Alicia Drake’s blazing bio of Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. Still, there’s a rich, informative pleasure in Bergé: “I never understood how you could have fallen in love with an effeminate seducer, straight out of an operetta, conceited and anything but well hung.” (So French!) Or, morbid yet fascinating: Bergé closed Saint Laurent’s eyes after his death. “I hadn’t realized how difficult it would be to do so,” he writes, “or that the eyelids would refuse to stay closed. A nurse had to place a compress on each one.” There are warm domestic scenes too, including a description of Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol giggling together in Marrakech, stoned on marijuana jam.

Here, in Bergé’s deft phrases and clever asides, were the messages and meanings for which I had been so hungry.

For the reader of this review, Saint Laurent needs no introduction, yet it was Bergé who made the house insanely wealthy. It was the first couture firm to be listed on the Paris Bourse, in 1989; by the 1990s, it earned $500 million in annual sales, [3] though Saint Laurent never knew the details. “He never knew how much he had. Never,” Bergé said in a 2012 interview. [4] “Money for him was something strange.” Fashion history tends to slight the business side: Calvin Klein is famous while Barry Schwartz remains a marginal figure. Bergé, however, got involved in fashion, founding and leading the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in the 1970s. He headed (controversially) the Paris opera, and stewarded Jean Cocteau’s estate. As Saint Laurent retreated into depression—“You had decided to be death’s lover,” Bergé writes—Bergé came ever more into the public eye. In his last years, Saint Laurent looked increasingly haggard, with a hollow expression—“ruined,” as the couple’s friend Marguerite Duras might have said. Bergé stayed robust.

What makes a person or their utterances “so French”? A fondness for aphorism? Superciliousness? These are the clichés. Yet it’s also a sophistication, an openness to paradox. (“You always knew that fashion is not an art,” Bergé writes, “even though an artist is needed to create it.”) Bergé made money so Saint Laurent could make fashion; and yet, by page sixty of this marvelous little book, I was startled to realize that the excitement, the originality—the “art” that I so seldom found in Saint Laurent’s last 20 or so years of collections—was here. Here, in Bergé’s deft phrases and clever asides, were the messages and meanings for which I had been so hungry.

Marriage is weird. Gay marriage is, maybe, even weirder. Dualities and duplicities abound and sometimes, that’s just what love happens to be. In the end, Bergé concealed from Saint Laurent the fact that he was dying of cancer: “What good would it have done?” Perhaps that was, indeed, for the best. But I wonder how much Saint Laurent was aware that art, or at least artfulness, was like the saliva swapped in a French kiss. Whatever ruined Yves—the bad love affair, drugs, melancholy—he passed the baton to Bergé, who put their stuff up for auction and crafted this account of their relationship into a wicked tome. And then Bergé did one last, one very French, thing: he dedicated this book to Madison Cox, his own boyfriend.

 

Notes

[1] Sciolino, Elaine. “Saint Laurent’s Other Half,” The New York Times, May 11, 2011.

[2] It was also their first acquisition, in 1960. The piece can be seen here, but it deserves to be seen in situ, in the film or art book referenced at the top.

[3] Kandell, Jonathan. “Pierre Bergé, Transformative Fashion Executive and Opera Czar, Dies at 86,” The New York Times, September 8, 2017.

[4] Unsigned. “Pierre Bergé: ‘Yves Died at the Right Time,’” The Talks, February 22, 2012.

Dior at ROM

Dior at ROM

Items: Is Fashion Modern?

Items: Is Fashion Modern?