Pierre Berge, magnate and Yves Saint Laurent's partner, dies

FILE - In this Sept.9 2012 file photo, French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, left, and Pierre Berge, in Paris. Pierre Berge, an influential French businessman and philanthropist who was fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent's romantic and business partner and championed gay rights, has died at 86. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

Pierre Berge, an influential French businessman and philanthropist who was fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent's romantic and business partner and championed gay rights, has died at 86

PARIS — Pierre Berge, an influential French businessman, philanthropist and gay rights activist who helped build the fashion empire of his longtime lover Yves Saint Laurent, has died. He was 86.

A cultural celebrity in France in his own right, Berge was one of France's leading art patrons as well as serving as CEO of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house and helping rescue Le Monde newspaper, among his many media investments.

He died in his sleep early Friday at one of his homes in the southern town of Saint-Remy-de-Provence, following a long illness, according to the Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation.

Berge was best known for helping Saint Laurent found his own fashion house in 1961 after leaving Christian Dior. What came next was a sartorial revolution, as Saint Laurent's pantsuits and styles capturing his era changed the way generations of women dressed.

"Without him, the genius of Saint Laurent would have never blossomed in such a shining way," French President Emmanuel Macron said in an homage to Berge. Macron described Berge as someone who mentored numerous artists, "the one in the shadows who brought them the confidence and solidity that they needed so badly to create."

Berge, long a regular presence at Saint Laurent fashion shows and seen as the business brains behind the empire, directed the house until 2002. Berge had been planning to inaugurate an Yves Saint Laurent museum in Paris next month and another in Morocco.

Born Nov. 14, 1930, on the Ile d'Oleron island, Berge later moved to Paris, where he moved in literary circles including Jean Cocteau, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, according to his foundation.

A lifelong left-wing activist who befriended late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, Berge used his prominence to push for gay rights, including France's legalization of gay marriage in 2013, and creating AIDS research foundation Sidaction.

Berge headed the Paris Opera — which paid tribute Friday to his "insatiable curiosity, sometimes radical choices" — and financed purchases of works for the Louvre museum and renovations of two rooms at the National Gallery of London. He was made officer in the Legion of Honor for his contributions to France.

He and Saint Laurent built up a huge art collection and properties including the renowned Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech, where Saint Laurent was buried after his death in 2008, and where Berge opened a museum celebrating Berber culture.

"It's an entire part of our literary and artistic memory that leaves us with Pierre Berge," Macron wrote.

No information was immediately available about funeral arrangements.

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