Entertainment & Arts

YSL's Marrakech love affair enshrined

Pierre Berge
Image caption Pierre Berge: "This period with Yves Saint Laurent was marvellous but it is 50 years ago."

Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge first bought a home together in Marrakech in 1966. Saint Laurent died eight years ago and now Berge has commissioned a big new museum in the Moroccan city as a memorial to his former lover's achievements.

It is half a century since Berge and Saint Laurent went to Morocco and fell in love with Marrakech. By then they had already been living together in Paris for five years.

"In 1966 our idea was simply to spend a month at the Mamounia (hotel)," Berge says.

"But we saw that Marrakech was a wonderful city and we decided to buy a property there. For the first 10 years we had a tiny house in the medina, the Arabic quarter. We loved the house."

Berge, six years his senior, was for a long time both Saint Laurent's lover and the tough-minded boss of what became one of the world's best-known fashion houses.

Aged 21, YSL had become chief designer at Christian Dior after the fashion designer's unexpected death. In the early 1960s the support of Berge enabled Saint Laurent to become a leading couturier in his own right.

Having a base in Marrakech was in part an escape for YSL and the couple started to spend a lot of time there. "In Paris he was a great VIP but in Morocco people did not know him and he was never approached in the street. It was wonderful."

But Berge recalls Marrakech as far more than a mere getaway.

Image caption Yves St Laurent fell into drugs and alcohol as his workload became almost unmanageable

"Yves was influenced artistically by the colours he encountered in Marrakech, the colours of nature and of the clothes he saw about him.

"It was always the colours more than the designs. Actually he loved the mix of colours: he said before Marrakech he saw only in black and white.

"Yves loved the way women wore a beautiful kaftan with other colourful garments. Marrakech shaped his own talent - which is why it is right to put the new museum there."

There is already an exhibition of the designer's work at the Pierre Berge - Yves Saint Laurent Foundation in Paris. But from the early days Berge was careful to keep examples of almost everything his partner designed (other design houses tended to sell off samples at the end of the season) and there are around 5,000 pieces currently in storage.

He said: "But the new museum in Marrakech will not only be of Yves' designs and drawings. I hope it will become a big cultural centre for painters and photographers: it will not only be for fashion."

It became Saint Laurent's habit to design most of his clothes for Paris in Marrakech. "Fashion shows happen twice a year so the periods of intense work were early December and early June.

"Then Yves would get up and work, work, work all day. At other times there could sometimes be periods of relaxation but not then."

There were also the Marrakech residents around them, often ex-pats attracted to Morocco for its sunshine and its indulgent ways. Some were very wealthy.

Image caption Pierre Berge: "Yves and I loved one another: it is important to say that and we set out to create an important new couture house and we had a magnificent success with it."

"There was the Comtesse de Breteuil who was very chic. And there was John Paul Getty Junior and his wife Talitha who had a wonderful palais in the medina.

"They all became close friends. The real artistic colony in Morocco was more in Tangiers, with people such as Tennessee Williams and Francis Bacon. But in the '60s in Marrakech we saw many parties.

"There was usually a lot of hash available and they played music like thunder. In the summer we slept in the day and we lived by night."

After a decade Saint Laurent and Berge decided to move to a bigger house, the Villa Oasis. The new house adjoined the Jardin Majorelle, the once beautiful gardens laid out in the 1930s which had fallen into a dismal state.

In 1980 the renovated site became Saint Laurent and Berge's first great gift to the city they loved. It now has 800,000 visitors a year.

But as the work-rate intensified, Yves was losing some of his youthful brio and there were strains with Berge. Though they worked together professionally until the end of YSL's life, the years of profound intimacy had ended.

"Marrakech remained a part of his life but it became a sad part of his life. At the end Saint Laurent fell into drugs and alcohol and it was very difficult. I don't believe being in Marrakech was part of the problem: if someone desires to drink too much it will happen everywhere, maybe on the moon.

"Yves and I loved one another: it is important to say that. And we set out to create an important new couture house and we had a magnificent success with it. But I am not a nostalgic person. This period with Yves Saint Laurent was marvellous but it is 50 years ago."

Image copyright bbc
Image caption Pierre Berge: "We were young and to be young is a wonderful time but I love the moment I am in - the past is the past and you cannot change it."

Does looking back on those years makes him happy?

Berge gives a long sigh. "What can I tell you? What can I say? Yves faced so many pressures because of the work. And as things go wrong you look on and you feel completely impotent. How can you help someone in that position?

"I tried many, many times - believe me. But I realised very soon I could do nothing."

At 85, Berge comes in to work each day at the foundation in Paris which bears his and Saint Laurent's name. He still visits Marrakech and says he would like to live there permanently.

"When Yves and I were there it was fantastic: we were young and to be young is a wonderful time. But I love the moment I am in. The past is the past and you cannot change it."

The Yves Saint Laurent museum will open in Marrakech in 2017.

Related Topics

Around the BBC