The Future For Fashion In The Post-YSL-Pierre Bergé Era – Forbes
Pierre BergÃ©âs death after a long illness on September 8 of this year â a few days before Paris Fashion Week and month before the opening of two museums dedicated to his long-time business and personal partner Yves Saint Laurent – leaves some pretty large holes in the Parisian cultural scene. So does that business acumen, strategic vision and incomparable drive that launched the first real fashion empire, launching the Yves Saint Laurent Couture House in 1961, with YSLâs first designer show in 1962.
âFrance has lost one of its most iconic business leaders,â INSEAD Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior Federic Godart told me in an email exchange for this blog. âNot only because of his unique contribution to the YSL brand, but also because of the role he played in French cultural and political lives – for example as the head of the OpÃ©ras Bastille and Garnier and the Salle Favart (1989-1994, under then-French president Francois Mitterand), as the founder of the Institut FranÃ§ais de la Mode (IFM – Franceâs top fashion school), and as a strong supporter of the French political left.â
That theme resonated in statements issued by Franceâs political leaders following BergÃ©âs death. Former Socialist French Culture Minister Jack Lang called BergÃ© a âtrue prince of the arts and culture.â
French President Emmanuel Macronâs statement praised Bergeâs genius for âcreating beauty and excellenceâ wherever he could, adding, âA whole part of our collective citizen and artistic memory dies with Pierre BergÃ©.â
Franceâs far-left National Assemblyman Jean-Luc MÃ©lenchon praised BergÃ©âs role in the fight against racism, his support of Aids research and to the arts, noting he âdid not devote his life to his money.â
A long-time supporter of gay rights, BergÃ© participated in the creation of the AIDS association Sidaction, and acted as president in 1996 until his death. His support of French culture extended to its newspaper of record, Le Monde. BergÃ© was part of a group of business figures that took over the struggling daily French newspaper in 2010, and was appointed chairman of the supervisory board at the newspaper.
A Rebel With A Cause
BergÃ© is a good example of how rebellious thinking, vision and drive can create success â and also the luck to achieve it when all else fails. It started when the teenage BergÃ© (son of a progressive school teacher and a tax official) decided to leave school early, and make his fortune in the cultural and business mecca â Paris. His life took a decidedly unique twist from his first day in the French capital, which became part of his oft-told personal legend:
âAt the age of 18 in La Rochelle, I decided to leave my family. The day I arrived in Paris, I went for a walk on the Champs-ElysÃ©es when suddenly I saw a man go through a French window, fall through the air, grab at a store sign and crash at my feet. He was bleeding profusely. An ambulance arrived and took him to Marmottan hospital. The next day, I discovered in the newspapers that it had been Jacques PrÃ©vert. I have always considered it an omen that the same day I got to Paris, a poet fell on my head.â
He took easily to Parisian life, meeting both Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre through his involvement in various leftist organizations. But those political leanings did not stop him from becoming a passionate bibliophile and art collector, creating two of the worldâs top private art and rare books collections, with Saint Laurent.
Pierre BergÃ© was 28 years old, in a partnership with artist Bernard Buffet (Buffet painted, Berge sold the paintings) when he met the 22-year-old Yves Saint Laurent at a dinner party. The year was 1958. Saint Laurent had been appointed creative artistic director the year before, following the death of Christian Dior himself. It was, as the French say, a âcoup de foudreâ â literally a strike of craziness. The two became inseparable. Though their personal partnership ended amicably in 1976, their close friendship and business partnership endured until Saint Laurentâs death in 2008 at age 71.
The Launch of an Empire
Though Saint Laurentâs first collection for Dior had been a success, he was let go by the fashion house. BergÃ© saw it as an opportunity to create a new brand and turn it into a fashion empire, managing to convince American financier J. Mack Robinson of Georgia to fork over much of the money needed for the launch in 1962. YSL broke out of the red only in 1977, at a time when fashion was becoming more âdemocratic,â a trend that BergÃ© cottoned onto early, creating the first designer-brand pre-a-porter line, Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, with its first shop in the Rue de Tournon, on the left bank near the student quarter and the French Senate. But if the house was looking for âdemocracy,â the ready-to-wear prices were still high â better suited to the National Assembly than the student quarter.
YSL was also the first French fashion house to list on the Paris Bourseâ¦with BergÃ© being fined 1-million French francs (approximately $200,000) several years ago for insider trading when he dumped many of his shares the night before some bad financial numbers were released to the market.
The BergÃ©-YSL partnership was legendary both on and off-stage. âPierre BergÃ© was very central in the creation of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house. The couturier trusted him, and relied on his business and communications skills (he was himself not a big fan of the commercial aspects of fashion, and quite shy),â Godart says.
He continues, âCreative types not only need to trust the business acumen of their partners, but they also need to understand the key principles of business in creative industries: dealing with brand and cultural heritage, being different but not too much, andâsometimesâdaring to be a maverick. That being said, business types also need to trust and respect their creative partners. Itâs a two-way street.â