Pierre Berg, Yves Saint Laurent co-founder and true prince of culture, dies at 86

French fashion tycoon was a tireless campaigner for gay rights and donated much of his fortune to Aids research

Pierre Berg, the French fashion tycoon, philanthropist and art collector who was the driving force behind the creation of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house, has died at the age of 86 following a long illness.

Berg was one of the most influential business figures on the French cultural scene, known for his very public longterm personal and business relationship with the designer Saint Laurent, which captured the public imagination and inspired a series books and films.

From 1961, when the two men founded the fashion house, the tough Berg led the business side, while the shy Saint Laurent created the business designs that would shape French style throughout the 60s and 70s.

Berg was a passionate bibliophile and art collector, amassing two of the worlds top private art and rare books collections with Saint Laurent. He also campaigned for gay rights and donated a large part of his fortune to Aids research. In 2010 he was part of a group of business figures who took over the struggling daily French newspaper Le Monde, and was chairman of the supervisory board at the newspaper.

The former Socialist French culture minister, Jack Lang, led tributes on Friday calling Berg a true prince of the arts and culture.

Always politically engaged, Berg was an important backer and confidant of the late French Socialist president Francois Mitterrand and later backed other Socialist presidential candidates including Franois Hollande. In January this year, he threw his weight behind the centrist newcomer, Emmanuel Macron, who went on to win the presidency in May. Although backing Macron wholeheartedly, Berg at the same time lamented the decline of the Socialist party.

A whole part of our collective citizen and artistic memory dies with Pierre Berg, Macron said in a statement, praising Bergs genius for creating beauty and excellence wherever he could.

Hollande described Berg as an exceptional man of conviction who defended the idea of equal rights for all.

The leftwing MP Jean-Luc Mlenchon praised Bergs contributions to the fight against racism, to Aids research and to supporting the arts, lauding him as someone who did not devote his life to his money.

Berg was born on the le dOlron in the west of France, the son of a tax official and teacher. As a rebellious teenager in La Rochelle, he left school early intent on seeking his fortune in the cultural world of the capital. His story was an extraordinary saga of a self-made man who, from a modest start, ended up holding one of the worlds most valuable art and books collections. Shortly after arriving in Paris he was walking on the Champs lyses when the poet Jacques Prvert fell from a window and nearly landed on top of him.

He fell. Comme a! Berg told the Observer in 2009. They took him to the hospital. I didnt know it was Jacques Prvert. I learnt later from the newspaper.

Berg took this strange and surreal fall as a sign that the city was his natural place to be. He began working in antique books, scouring bookstalls along the Seine for treasures, built up a network of influential friends and worked in art promotion.

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Pierre Berg and Yves Saint Laurent in Paris in 1999. Photograph: Sipa Press/REX Shutterstock

In 1958, the 28-year-old Berg met Saint Laurent, who was six years younger. They began an intense relationship that would last the rest of their lives, morphing into a friendship, business partnership and a joint art and books collection. When Berg met Saint Laurent, the talented young artist and designer had taken over as head designer at the house of Dior. Saint Laurents spring collection had made him a star. But when Dior let Saint Laurent go shortly after, Berg decided they should set up their own label and turn it into an empire.

Saint Laurent, who was as shy as Berg was outspoken, suffered periods of depression and Berg became a driving force, organising the business and caring for him. Berg became known as the imposing figure who took care of everything.

Saint Laurent said of Berg in 2001: Everything I didnt have, he had. His strength meant I could rest on him when I was out of breath.

Berg and Saint Laurent were joined in a civil union a few days before the designer died of a brain tumour in 2008 aged 71.

In recent years, Berg decided to sell his and Saint Laurents vast book collection and part of their art collection, donating large sums to Aids research and the two mens charitable foundation.

Two museums dedicated to the life and work of Saint Laurent, financed by the foundation that the two men founded, are to open in Paris and Morocco this year.

In March 2017 Berg married the American garden designer Madison Cox, vice-president of the Berg-Saint Laurent foundation.

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