Even before Pierre Bergé started our conversation, I could hear his dog barking. No, not another “Moujik", the name that his partner Yves Saint Laurent gave to all their dogs. This one is Echo, white and fluffy and the constant companion of the 84-year-old aesthete and éminence grise of the fashion world. Explosive, opinionated and rambunctious - especially about the state of couture and designers' attempts to ape Yves - Bergé led me to ask one big question...
What did he think about Hedi Slimane's dissection of his role at Saint Laurent?
The "question-and-answer" online interview with Hedi was the fashion chatterbox of the summer. Uploaded during the dog days of August on the Yahoo Style website, little followed by fashion insiders, the interview was a precise dissection of the mind and policy of Slimane, 47. The intelligent questions by Dirk Standen, the former editor-in-chief of Style.com, were not co-responsive. This “conversation" was handled via email.
Yet Slimane's replies, didactic and informative, laid out with clinical precision how the designer envisages his role at Saint Laurent, including a step towards a modernised couture, with made-to-order tailoring in a new <hotel particulier> on the Left Bank, the heartland of Yves, who passed away in 2008.
You can read Yahoo’s long interview on Hedi Slimane here.
Almost every fashionista seems to have an opinion about Hedi's words, which I found fascinating because it was not an interview as I, as a journalist, understand the term. Rather than a conversation, in which a journalist poses questions and hopes for an interesting answer, this was more a strategy laid out bare in intense detail. In fact, in a private conversation with François-Henri Pinault, CEO of the Kering Group which owns Saint Laurent, the executive told me how fascinated and excited he was by Slimane's dissection of brand strategy and that he had sent the Yahoo words throughout his entire company.
But Bergé's reaction had to be different. He had an emotional attachment to Yves Saint Laurent, the man, and to Hedi, whom Bergé had originally talent-spotted for YSL menswear and avidly followed his subsequent career at Dior Homme. After that, the sensitive Slimane had left fashion for photography, working out of Berlin. But Bergé had found a place to show Hedi's striking work in the musical underground at the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent in Paris.
This father/son relationship was passionately represented in Hedi's online declaration of "unconditional love" and gratitude. "It is difficult to express how much I love him and admire him — I would do anything for him" were Hedi's words. I was eager to ask Bergé about that — and other elements of the online conversation in which he had no part.
Here is our discussion, slightly trimmed, and translated by me from its original French.
Pierre Bergé in conversation with Suzy Menkes
Suzy: Pierre. I wanted to talk because I read with great interest the long interview online with Hedi, which I found powerful — and fascinating.
Bergé: Me, too!
Suzy: I want to have your opinion about Hedi. There are so many bad things said about him, such as that he isn't really at Yves Saint Laurent's level. But I would like to hear what you think. You were behind Hedi from the start, weren't you?
Bergé: I am going to reply to you very precisely, Suzy. Firstly, I always accepted, because I couldn't do otherwise, that Yves Saint Laurent had to have a successor. It would be completely idiotic to think otherwise. That's one thing.
Secondly, to imagine that this successor would copy and re-make Saint Laurent until the end of time is equally idiotic. A successor to replace Saint Laurent must have his own vision and talent.
There have been two successors: Tom Ford and (Stefano) Pilati. I would like to say precisely that I recognise a lot of talent from Tom Ford — but it is for marketing. And that he had, in effect, redone the Gucci brand in a spectacular fashion, and I have a lot of admiration for that. I will say to you again, “admiration". But he was incapable of succeeding Yves Saint Laurent. Therefore it was, as you know, a flop. As for Pilati, it is better not to talk about it because it was nothing at all.
Then came Hedi. You can like it or not. Personally, I don't like all of it. But Hedi is someone who has a huge talent - that is indisputable. He has a real vision. You have to accept that, with its qualities and faults. That is what I think. I like him very much, I like Hedi a lot - a lot.
Suzy: I must say that in the big interview, Hedi says that he loves you.
Bergé: I read the interview and I was very touched and even flattered. But at the same time I was very embarrassed because it was such a big declaration. But I understand, because Hedi has always said it, since the early days, that he accepted to come to Saint Laurent and to come back "for Yves and for you". Only that. There was no other reason.
Suzy: In your opinion, why are people so dramatic when they talk about Hedi?
Bergé: There is a good reason. The truth is that Hedi does not really like people. He doesn't like journalists much. He doesn't play the rules of the game with the press. Therefore, people don't like him.
Suzy: Surely it goes further than that? It's also connected with Saint Laurent. There is a very good young British journalist (Alexander Fury) who wrote a piece recently in which he claimed that Hedi is not at the level of Saint Laurent — and it had to be said.
Bergé: I can understand all that, but we must be honest. I want to ask you frankly: is there anyone you think who is at the level of Saint Laurent? I'm asking you the question. I don't know a single person who is at Saint Laurent's level.
Suzy: I find it interesting what Hedi is doing at the moment and the new image he is giving to couture. He may do things which correspond more with menswear, because I thought he did very good things at Dior Homme and I wonder if he will follow that path for his couture? But I admit that it is not the same as Saint Laurent, who made all sorts of clothes.
Bergé: I am speaking to you in all honesty. It is not because I lived with Saint Laurent for 50 years that I have become hesitant. For me, Saint Laurent was much more than a couturier — it went further than that. Saint Laurent caused a revolution, a transformation which penetrated society, which left the aesthetic heights where all the other couturiers could be found and entered the social territory. He invented, really invented, as you know, ready-to-wear — and what followed is there.
This collection that we showed with such enormous success (at the Fondation) was the scandalous show of 1971. It was an extraordinary vision of the future. It went far beyond the status of a couturier. When people say that Slimane is not at the level of Saint Laurent… Yes, perhaps. Probably. But I don't know a single person at Yves Saint Laurent's level. And for various reasons — you know the business as much as I do – it no longer exists.
Suzy: Well, everything has changed. Now there is a lot of marketing. Designers have to make 10 collections a year. That is a killer.
Bergé: There is another thing I want to share with you - that Yves had one absolute and infallible rule. On the stage or on the runway, everything he showed was for sale. And in the boutiques, everything for sale had been shown on the runway. There were never any parallel collections. There were no clothes made to be photographed and other clothes made for clients.
Suzy: Something that I notice now — and it is quite bizarre — is that people have become hysterical about designers. Was it always like that?
Bergé: No, it was not always like that, it became like that. I am not in a good position to talk about it, because I was the one who created the first ready-to-wear syndicate in 1973. I found Karl Lagerfeld, Sonia Rykiel, Kenzo, Emmanuelle Khanh and Dorothée Bis — then on the other side five big couturiers out of 10. We were 10 showing pret-a-porter collections, and that was all. But you see what it has turned into: 180 to 200. It's gone crazy. And there is this myth of the designer, who is now made into a movie star.
Suzy: But weren't they already considered as stars? Yves was, in a way, the star of his epoch.
Bergé: Yes, in a certain way. But not how it is now.
Suzy: There wasn't the love for, and culture of, celebrity as we see it now.
Bergé: It's ridiculous. Ridiculous!
Suzy: When we hear all these stories around Hedi, isn't it true, Pierre, that people are looking less at the clothes and more about what is happening around the collections?
Bergé: As you know, I created and I am still president of the Institut Français de la Mode (IFN). You know what was the focus? Teaching. You must understand that this no longer exists — it's a different subject. Haute couture is not art but an applied art, and thus had disappeared. Today, as I see it, the only way to do fashion now — and I must add that I don't know the owners nor the designers of these houses, and I don't have any financial involvement with them — fashion today is Zara and H&M. I'm not saying it is good, but I profoundly believe this.
Suzy: But that is something else again — and it is all about marketing.
Bergé: I know it is about marketing. But it is the quality in relation to the price that is so powerful. Fashion and couture today serve who? The nouveau riches.
Suzy: I want to ask you something. I wrote an article ages ago when I said that Karl played Salieri to the Mozart of Saint Laurent. Do you think that is true?
Bergé: Karl's problem is the following: it's like two starlets in the theatre or cinema, when one becomes Marilyn Monroe and the other is a nobody. I like Karl a lot - I've known him for ever. He is really cultivated and very intelligent. But Karl's big problem is that he has never been successful with his own label. And he has not been able to reach the same level of success as under the name of Chanel. It is sad.
Suzy: Returning to Hedi — do you see him a lot? When I saw him in Los Angeles, he was in good spirits. He seemed completely different than in Paris. In LA he looked great and seemed on top form. Do you see him often?
Bergé: No, because he usually comes to Paris for just a few days. I see him each time he comes to Paris, but for a short time. I keep promising to go to Los Angeles to spend a few days with him, and I will do it one day.