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French fashion tycoon and art collector Pierre Berge dies aged 86 in southern France
This file photo taken on February 11, 2015 shows French businessman Pierre Berge posing at his office in Paris. French businessman Pierre Berge, former companion of Yves Saint Laurent, died on September 8, 2017 after a "long illness", the Fondation Pierre Berge - Yves Saint Laurent announced. STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP.

by Fiachra Gibbons

PARIS (AFP).- The French fashion tycoon Pierre Berge, the business brains behind the Yves Saint Laurent empire, a major philanthropist and a leading figure in the fight against AIDS, died on Friday aged 86.

Berge, the longtime partner of the late designer Yves Saint Laurent, died in his sleep at his country home at Saint-Remy-de-Provence in southern France, his foundation said.

It added that Berge would be cremated on Tuesday in a private ceremony, and a "public commemoration in his honour" would be held at a later date.

The couple -- Berge the hard-headed foil to Saint Laurent's mercurial genius -- turned the fashion world on its head when they set up their own label in 1961 after the fragile designer had fallen foul of Dior.

A passionate philanthropist and art collector, Berge was also a tireless campaigner for gay rights and donated a large slice of his fortune to AIDS research.

Politically committed to the end, he was an important backer and confidant of the late French leader Francois Mitterrand, and this year threw his weight behind Emmanuel Macron's successful campaign for the presidency.

Former French culture minister Jack Lang led the tributes to a man he called a "true prince of the arts and culture", a business "angel" who backed a host of noble causes.

Berge "was there to take on all the good fights in particular to provide the means for research to defeat AIDS", he said.

"France has lost an exceptional person," said the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo.

Berge and Saint Laurent -- whose tumultuous relationship was the subject of two films -- were joined in a civil union a few days before the designer died of a brain tumour in 2008 aged 71.

Fragile designer's 'rock'
Berge was the designer's rock, always there to pick up the pieces for a man who -- despite his infidelities and addictions -- he firmly believed was "the world's greatest fashion designer of the second half of the 20th century".

Two museums he masterminded, dedicated to Saint Laurent's life and work, are to open in Paris and Morocco this year.

Born on November 14, 1930 on the Ile d'Oleron off France's west coast, Berge was a particularly French self-made man, as passionate about culture as he was about making money.

Indeed, the son of a teacher and a tax inspector made his first few francs as a student bibliophile in down-at-heel postwar Paris by buying and selling secondhand books.

"I would pick them up down by the Seine in the morning and sell them -- not always at a good profit -- in the afternoon to antiquarian book dealers," he told AFP last year.

At the same time he was befriending the Paris literati, particularly Jean Cocteau and Jean Giono, and became the unofficial agent of the French artist Bernard Buffet, hugely facilitating his success.

Over the years Berge built up a large art collection and one of the world's greatest libraries in private hands, which he was in the process of selling when he died.

'Sale of the century'
Like the proceeds of his and Saint Laurent's art collection -- which went under the hammer for about 340 million euros ($409 million) in 2009 at the time in what was dubbed "the sale of the century" -- almost all of the money from the sale is going to their charitable foundation or to HIV research.

Always firmly on the Left despite his business success, Berge became a confidant of Socialist leader Mitterrand and launched the weekly magazine Globe to support his candidacy for the presidency in 1981.

He also helped finance the Socialist Segolene Royal when she ran against Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 election and then the successful campaign of her former partner Francois Hollande, who defeated Sarkozy in 2012.

Berge's activism extended far beyond gay rights, and in 2010 he led a trio of tycoons to "save" the left-leaning Le Monde newspaper despite right-wing President Sarkozy's attempts to stop them.

He loved Marrakesh in Morocco, setting up a museum of Berber art there and conserving a beautiful gardens, the Majorelle.

Yet last year he lashed out at designers for using Islamic clothing and headscarves, accusing them of taking part in the "enslavement of women".

In later years Berge ran an auction house and a theatre, staged concerts, headed the Paris Opera, worked as a UNESCO goodwill ambassador and helped Chinese pro-democracy protesters.

He married the American garden designer Madison Cox, 58, in March, who will now replace him as head of the Berge-Saint Laurent Foundation.

Agence France-Presse

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