Pierre Cardin feud tears village apart
Fashion designer Pierre Cardin has upset the locals in the French village of Lacoste, by buying the Marquis de Sade's famous castle and 22 more properties.
It's been called the most ravishing village in France - literally.
Lacoste was once the home of the champion debauchee, the Marquis de Sade. In the hilltop chateau, he staged his famous orgies and flagellations, with local girls procured for his enjoyment.
Two-and-a-half centuries later, Lacoste is ravishing in the other sense. Steep cobbled streets and ancient houses lend an archetypal beauty.
This part of the Luberon has always drawn eminent outsiders. For many years, Tom Stoppard had a home in Lacoste and John Malkovich owns a farm in the vineyards below. Peter Mayle - of A year in Provence fame - lives a few miles away.
But it is the fashion designer, Pierre Cardin, who has left by far the deepest imprint on Lacoste. Indeed for many locals, the Cardin mark is too deep. They wish he would go away.
It was in 2001 that the veteran couturier acquired De Sade's castle, which he in part restored and now sometimes lives in.
He erected modernist sculptures and launched an annual theatre festival in an abandoned Roman quarry.
Cardin then set about also buying up large parts of the actual village. Today he owns 22 houses along the Rue Basse - Lower Street - as well as a boulangerie and a cafe.
Several of the houses he has converted into futuristic art galleries, and others into guest houses. Most of the time they are empty of visitors.
Cardin's acquisitive coup de force provoked major ructions among the Lacostois.
The village has a long tradition of feuding, and reactions to this cosmopolitan interloper have been bitterly divisive.
Some say he has destroyed the community by spraying his money and driving up prices. For others, he is a generous philanthropist who provides much-needed local employment.
Now aged 89, Cardin himself says he is impervious to the attacks to which he is subjected.
"Personally I pay no attention to what the people say. They are just jealous," he tells me in an interview.
"After all, what have they ever done for Lacoste? Absolutely nothing."
The bitterest of Cardin's enemies are a couple called Jacques and Colette Truphemus, who live on Rue Basse amidst his guest-houses and exhibition spaces.
A retired mason, Jacques was born in Lacoste and Colette - who is half-English - came here when they married in 1963.
"First he bought one house, then two, then three. Now he owns most of the lower part of the village," says Colette.
"Before he came I used to have friends here. We would meet for cards or a coffee. Now there's nothing. No life, no friends. He has killed the village."
"It is like an opera set," says Jacques.
Recently hostility to Cardin flared into confrontation when he proposed creating a golf course in fields outside the village. Protesters driving tractors threatened to disrupt the opening of his theatre festival, and he was forced to back down.
But not everyone is happy with the way Cardin has been treated.
Olivier Mazel, who runs a guesthouse with his wife Lydia, says much of the opposition is ideological.
"They hate him because he is an outsider and because he is rich. But people like that are against everything.
"Our view is that he has brought a lot to Lacoste. Without him the castle would be in ruins. Most of the houses he bought were empty and in a terrible state. He has put money into the place and employs about 40 people.
"The golf course is typical. It would have created dozens of jobs, especially in the winter when life here can be desolate. What's infuriating is that the land he wanted to use had been abandoned by the very farmers who opposed him tooth-and-nail."
Finn MacEoin, an Irish writer who has settled in Lacoste, is another who takes Cardin's side in the dispute - once for his pains getting a bullet through the letter-box.
"Cardin is a true philanthropist. He doesn't want to be the richest man in the graveyard, so he spends his money on things he loves.
"But sure, if Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford or some other philanthropist were re-born in Lacoste, they'd have him up against the wall! The atmosphere in Lacoste can be truly poisonous."
Cardin's own story is a long march from humble beginnings to fame and enormous wealth.
He became a world-renowned figure in the 1960s after he launched the first pret-a-porter show for the mass market, and introduced high fashion to China and Japan. Today his franchises operate in more than 120 countries.
Cardin still runs his global empire from offices opposite the Elysee in Paris. But he has always been regarded as something of an upstart by the fashion elite - no doubt because of his working-class origins.
"This is the man who invented pret-a-porter," says MacEoin. "He was persecuted by the rich when he was poor, and now that he's rich he's persecuted by the poor. But the real man of the people - it's him."
Cardin himself says his actions in Lacoste are for the community's benefit.
"I do what I do not just for myself, but for everyone here," he tells me. "I do it simply because I love the place."