The Turbulent Love Story Behind Yves Saint Laurent's Revolutionary Rise

Jun 24, 2014
Originally published on June 24, 2014 9:39 am

In 2009, Forbes rated designer Yves Saint Laurent the "Top-Earning Dead Celebrity" of the year. (Surely a bittersweet distinction.) Now, Saint Laurent's success — and how it was shaped and fed by his lover and manager Pierre Berge — is the subject of the new film Yves Saint Laurent. In it, their relationship is both interactive and supportive. "Fashion is not a major art," Saint Laurent says in the film, to which Berge replies, "The way you do it, you have to be an artist."

A King Of Fashion

Costume designer Patricia Field, who put the ladies of Sex and the City into their Manolo Blahnik shoes, makes Saint Laurent sound like a chic Che Guevara: "I think he was one of the revolutionaries," she says.

According to Field, Saint Laurent looped the pulse of his times into the fashions he designed. "Fashion is an ingredient in culture and art," she says. "And at his time, he was the king of it."

In 1966, Saint Laurent created "Le Smoking," a tuxedo jacket coupled with slim slacks — a pants suit for women. It was revolutionary, simple and elegant. In an archival interview, the designer described his approach: "I don't like [to] make a woman ... an abstract concept of the fashion," he said. "I don't like [to] say, 'You must wear that.' ... I am not a dictator."

Still, what Saint Laurent sent down the runway each season made the fashion world sit up and take notice. The movie re-creates a number of his fashion shows using gorgeous, super-skinny models draped, tied and zipped into actual Saint Laurent originals. The clothes were sprung from cold storage on loan, and handled with extreme care and curator's gloves for the shoots.

At His Lowest, 'He Always Managed To Create New Things'

"You were happy only twice a year" Berge says to Saint Laurent in the film, "spring and fall." That's when Saint Laurent was creating and showing his new collections. Otherwise, as the film makes clear, Yves Saint Laurent — a diagnosed manic-depressive — was very, very fragile.

"He was definitely very sick," says Jalil Lespert, the film's director. "Yves was not just like a diva or ... like a star, you know. He had this incredible struggle of his life against illness."

He was vulnerable, excitable and had major nervous breakdowns.

Pierre Niney plays Saint Laurent in the film. The 26-year-old actor says, "That's the most fascinating thing about that character, the fact that in the worst moment of desperation and unhappiness and pain, he always managed to create new things — masterpieces, actually."

To Niney and Lespert, Yves Saint Laurent's efforts are heroic and, as with many tormented artists, therapeutic.

"He was such a sensitive human being that it was painful to live, for him, everyday life," Niney says. "And the only getaway he found — and he found it really young, at maybe 15 or 16 — was to draw and to create."

'He Needed Pierre Berge,' And Berge 'Needed To Be Needed'

When Saint Laurent met and fell in love with Berge in the late '50s, they quite deliberately defined the roles they would play for the next 40 years. Saint Laurent was the artist; Berge was the ultimate manager-fixer who smoothed the way and kept the operation moving.

"Yves Saint Laurent couldn't deal with daily things, daily problems," Niney says. "He was really unable and handicapped, almost, with that. So he needed Pierre Berge, the businessman, dealing with money. And Pierre Berge, he needed to be needed."

Jalil Lespert agrees: "Pierre [Berge] is a mix of someone who [needs] to control — he's a kind of control freak — and also is very generous. He [needs] to help the one that he [loves]. He will do everything for him."

Including either staying out of the way or, conversely, getting out in front, when it was appropriate. In the movie, it's Berge who steps out of the limos first.

"He was always in front because it was Yves who was behind him in the car, like a prince or a king," Lespert says. "The king was absolutely the creator, and the creator was Yves."

The film director says this hierarchy was always apparent. Take, for instance, the home the men shared in Morocco: "The big bedroom in front of the garden — beautiful — it was the bedroom of Yves. And Pierre's bedroom was the small one behind it. I mean, the genius was Yves. All the ideas, all the creation — it was Yves."

The tale of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge is a tumultuous, passionate, complex, decadent, drug-laced love story. They separated as lovers in 1976, but they remained friends and business partners. Saint Laurent died in 2008, but Berge is still keeper of the flame. He was even an adviser on the film.

The movie has gotten mixed reviews so far — too much fashion, too much froufrou — but the fabrics are visual feasts. And you can enjoy them in your jeans, with popcorn.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Picture this. It's 1954. Christian Dior runs a fashion empire from Paris. He sees the sketches of a French teenager named Yves Saint Laurent and immediately takes the young man on as his assistant. When Dior diea suddenly three years later, Saint Laurent at only 21-years-old takes over the House of Dior. It's in this era of his life that a new movie, "Yves Saint Laurent" picks up. It centers on his success and how it was shaped and fed by his lover and manager Pierre Berge. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says it's a complicated love story.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: In the movie, the relationship is interactive and supportive.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YVES SAINT LAURENT")

SAINT LAURENT: (FRENCH SPOKEN).

STAMBERG: Fashion is not a major art, Saint Laurent says in the film to which Berge replies, the way you do it, you have to be an artist.

DILYS BLUM: If you wanted to be beautifully dressed you would wear Yves Saint Laurent.

STAMBERG: Dilys Blum is curator of costumes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Patricia Field goes further. Field's the one who put Sex and the City girls in their Manolo Blanik shoes. Patricia Field makes Yves Saint Laurent sound like a chic Che Guevara.

PATRICIA FIELD: Oh, I think he was one of the revolutionaries.

STAMBERG: Patricia Field says Saint Laurent looped the pulse of his times into the fashions he designed.

FIELD: Fashion is an ingredient in culture and art. And at his time, he was the king of it.

STAMBERG: In 1966, Saint Laurent created Le Smoking, a tuxedo jacket coupled with slim slacks - a pantsuit for women. Revolutionary - simple - elegant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAURENT: I don't like to make a woman in an abstract concept of fashion.

STAMBERG: This is the designer himself in an archival interview.

LAURENT: I don't like to say you must wear that. If you don't wear that - if you are not...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You don't like to see everybody getting the same kind of haircut.

LAURENT: I am not a dictator.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You're not a dictator.

LAURENT: No.

STAMBERG: But what he set down the runway each season made the fashionista world sit up and take notice. The movie recreates lots of his fashion shows - gorgeous super skinny models to draped, tied, zipped into actual Saint Laurent originals. The clothes were sprung from cold storage on loan and handled with extreme care and curator's gloves for the shoots.

PIERRE BERGE: (French spoken).

STAMBERG: You were happy only twice a year, Pierre Berge says to his lover Saint Laurent - spring and fall. That's when he was creating and showing his new collections. Otherwise, as the eponymous film makes clear, Yves Saint Laurent was very, very fragile.

JALIL LESPERT: He was definitely very sick.

STAMBERG: Diagnosed as a manic-depressive says film director, Jalil Lespert.

LESPERT: He was not just like a diva or someone like a star, you know. He had this incredible struggle of his life against illness.

STAMBERG: Major nervous breakdowns - vulnerable - excitable.

PIERRE NINEY: That's the most fascinating thing about the character.

STAMBERG: Twenty-six-year-old Pierre Niney plays Saint Laurent in the film.

NINEY: The fact that in the worst moment of desperation and happiness and pain, he always managed to create new things and masterpieces, actually.

STAMBERG: To the filmmakers, Yves Saint Laurent's efforts are heroic, and as with many tormented artists, therapeutic.

NINEY: He was such a sensitive human being, that it was painful to live for him - everyday life. And the only getaway he found - and he found it really young at maybe 15 or 16 - was to draw and to create.

STAMBERG: When Saint Laurent met and fell in love with Pierre Berge in the late fifties, they quite deliberately defined the roles they would play for the next 40 years. Yves was the artist. Pierre was the ultimate manager fixer who smoothed the way and kept the operation moving. Again, Pierre Niney.

NINEY: Yves Saint Laurent couldn't deal with daily things - daily problems. He was really unable and handicapped almost with that. So he needed Pierre Berge, the businessman dealing with money. Pierre Berge - he needed to be needed.

STAMBERG: Director Jalil Lespert agrees.

LESPERT: Pierre is a mix of someone who needs to control - he's a kind of control freak. And also, he's very generous. And he needs to help the one that he loved. He will do everything for him.

STAMBERG: Including staying out of the way and getting out in front when it was appropriate. In the movie, it's Berge who gets out of the limos first.

LESPERT: He was always in front because it was Yves who was behind him in the car like a prince or a King. The king was absolutely the creator, and the creator was Yves.

STAMBERG: The film director says this hierarchy was always apparent - for instance, in the home the men shared in Morocco.

LESPERT: I saw the house, for example, and the big bedroom in front of the garden - beautiful. It was the bedroom of Yves, and Pierre' bedroom was the small one behind it. I mean the genius was Yves. All the ideas, all of the creation - it was Eyves.

STAMBERG: Tumultuous, passionate, complex, decadent and drug-laced - the story of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge was a love story. They separated as lovers in 1976, but they remained friends and business partners. Saint Laurent died in 2008. Berge is still a keeper of the flame and was an advisor on the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Singing) I feel love each time you sleep by me.

STAMBERG: The movie's gotten mixed reviews so far - too much fashion - too much froufrou. But the fabrics are visual feasts. And you can enjoy them in your jeans with popcorn. I'm Susan Stamberg from NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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