The penny dropped for me while strolling through the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, the beautiful garden owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner—as much in business as in life—Pierre Bergé.
This was no ordinary garden; it was an ode to love. If great love is defined by what it creates together, then this exuberant, whimsical, lush garden crammed with exotic plants—from super-tall bamboos to succulent gigantic cactuses—was a prime example. It had devotion written all over it. That special yearning for perfection, that generous scale of design, that unrelenting eye for detail—these are hallmarks of a work of love. Unrestrained imagination. Mischief. Audacity. Charm.
These are adjectives you could use to describe major works of Yves Saint Laurent—the path-breaking Le Smoking (French for tuxedo) that suddenly bestowed an unusual mix of power and femininity on women, the Mondrian dress based on the colour blocks of the artist Piet Mondrian, and many more—but the question that fascinates me is what shape his career would have taken had he not met Bergé. Would it have been just as illustrious? Would he have become the iconic figure he did? Perhaps, yes—he was a formidable creative talent, after all—but what one can say for sure is that having Bergé’s business acumen and marketing smarts made them an unbeatable power couple.
“I just looked after him and his oeuvre,” Bergé said in an interview in 2009 in the book Yves Saint Laurent that accompanied a retrospective exhibition after Saint Laurent’s death. “From the moment I bound my fate to Yves Saint Laurent’s, I never had second thoughts. He never raised a single question about my running of the firm. As for me, I had blind faith in him. I knew he was steadily building an oeuvre. And I know what role I played.”
The events leading up to the start of their fashion house were a roller coaster, with fate adding its own twists and turns. The extremely gifted but acutely shy Saint Laurent, not yet 20, was hired by Christian Dior in 1955—having Dior as his mentor was a stroke of luck, and indeed the mentor-protégé relationship was very special, one that Saint Laurent remembered as his happiest time—and then two years later, quite unexpectedly, Dior died of a heart attack, naming Saint Laurent as creative director. His first collection—the Trapeze Line, audacious in that it “un-cinched” the famed Dior New Look waist—was a resounding success, and Bergé went up to congratulate him after the show. Three days later they met for dinner, and their relationship grew from there.
In 1960, much against his wish, Saint Laurent was drafted into the army during the Algerian war. The shy, sensitive designer was an utter misfit, and things went horribly wrong very quickly—within two months he was declared unfit for military service, and hospitalized with depression, a condition that haunted him for the rest of his life. Another blow: He was replaced at Dior. When Bergé drove up to the hospital with the news, Saint Laurent said, “Then we will start a fashion house ourselves, and you’ll run it.” And that is exactly what they did.
The success that followed was legendary. The tuxedo for women may have become synonymous with his name, but he transformed the modern woman’s wardrobe with his take on many other garments—the pantsuit for example, which he made not just acceptable but also the height of fashion—always finding the right note between functionality and elegance, always reading the desires of the new, increasingly assertive woman. He reached out beyond haute couture—“I was fed up with making dresses for blasé millionaires”—with the Rive Gauche boutiques that offered lower-priced but exquisitely made ready-to-wear collections of basic clothing. Alongside, he explored the exotic and the extravagant, with designs inspired by far-off lands—Morocco, India, China, Spain, Russia, Turkey—brilliant colours, striking silhouettes, embroidered and embellished, giving women a wonderful counterpoint to everyday functionality. He championed “style”, which is eternal and inherent, over “fashion”, which is fleeting and replaceable.
But his success was bittersweet, haunted by depression, and over time the use of drugs and alcoholism. As a result, Bergé ended their romantic relationship in 1976—“I never left him for someone else; but for myself, to save myself”—but here is the twist: He remained his friend and business partner. Their affection endured—a few days before Saint Laurent died of cancer in 2008, they were united in a civil union.
Of course, Saint Laurent and Bergé aren’t the only power couple—artistic genius paired with business savvy is a recurring theme for success in the fashion world. Miuccia Prada met her husband Patrizio Bertelli in 1978—ironically, they fought at their first meeting, as she believed he had copied her designs—but her creativity and his management have created a highly coveted global fashion brand. Similarly, Valentino met his partner Giancarlo Giammetti in 1960, love blossomed, as also a commercial partnership, with the latter providing the much needed business leadership. Giorgio Armani got the push he needed to start his own brand from his partner Sergio Galeotti, who unfortunately died in 1985, 10 years after they founded the company. “The courage that he gave me inspired me to start a new life,” Armani said in a 2012 interview on CNN. “It was pivotal to my success.”
But beyond the obvious coming together of creative and business talent, I believe what really makes these power couples tick is a special kind of chemistry. In the 50 years that Saint Laurent and Bergé spent together, they collected 773 works of art, which were auctioned by Christie’s for $480 million (Rs.2,550 crore now) in what was dubbed the “Sale of the Century” in 2009. In a book on the auction, Bergé describes their collecting process: “We had incredible good fortune, yes, Saint Laurent and I, to have the same tastes, the same reactions—and to have the same dislikes, the same desires. Today, I can’t say which of us chose what or how.”
What is that if not love.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury. Write to her at email@example.com
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