The tiny provençal village of Lacoste enjoys splendid views, especially from the château at the top, over the mountains of the Luberon and other picturesque villages nearby: the spires of Bonnieux and the nautical contours of Ménerbes. The proprietor of this lofty outlook was once the ubiquitous Marquis de Sade, until his scandalous behaviour once more led to his being forced to flee, and his castle was burned and partly demolished by the villagers in 1789.
In 2001, the ruins were bought by another rather larger-than-life figure, the Italian-born fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who had previously also acquired a Venetian palazzo reputedly formerly owned by Casanova. The initial phases of Cardin’s restoration of the château and its limestone quarry were enthusiastically praised by local residents; only when the full extent of his plans for the village became apparent did the tensions between the new “seigneur” of Lacoste, to which he once likened himself, and the inhabitants of his domaine begin to mount.
Postwar Lacoste was in ruins, nearly devoid of modern amenities and of population, the surrounding hillsides of the Luberon littered with unpleasant remnants of Resistance activity. It would have been hard to predict the artistic renaissance that was to take place over the next three decades, but in 1958 the American artist Bernard Pfriem arrived at this desolate outpost, liked what he saw, bought a house for a song, and set up first his studio, then in 1970, together with the poet Gustaf Sobin, founded the Lacoste School for the Arts. After various academic associations including with Sarah Lawrence College in New York, the Lacoste School was taken over in 2002 by the internationally-acclaimed Savannah (Georgia) College of Art and Design (SCAD), which currently runs 8-week courses for 60 students in all areas of art, media, and design. It is onto this backdrop of home grown artistic success that Pierre Cardin has superimposed his own brand of cultural vision: his summer arts festival attracts thousands in late July and August for first-class performances of music and opera, all part of his express intention of turning Lacoste in a “cultural St-Tropez”, and restore the town’s “authentic glamour” and “truth”. The trouble is, the locals don’t agree. The tickets for the festival are normally priced beyond their means; the programming probably does not really reflect local cultural interests, and most of the festival’s profitability is not likely to remain local.
Far more serious, however, is that Pierre Cardin has in fact bought up quite a bit of the village: different sources put the number of properties he owns between 20 and 42, including most of the Rue de Basse, known amongst locals as the “Cardin Champs Elysées”, with its boutique selling exotic teas, foie gras, and champagne, under the Cardin logo “Maxim’s”. While no one contests that the €30 million or so that he has sunk into the village has objectively raised some standards, and that the local summer employment offered by the festival is welcome, the greater problem is that property values have been inflated beyond the ability of local residents to afford to keep or buy. And whereas Bernard Pfriem was well-liked in the village – there are still those who remember him and regard him as a true “Lacostois” – Mr Cardin is often regarded as aloof and even contemptuous of the villagers, and accused of attempting to convert Lacoste into what would pass for a Parisian view of provençal charm for the benefit of the well-heeled summer festival crowd. Surely it must be depressing for the villagers to see so many locked and vacant houses during the off-season.
An area as rich in beautiful landscapes and atmosphere as Provence is always bound to attract affluent and often artistic outsiders; previous residents of Lacoste include Max Ernst and André Breton, and more recently John Malkovitch and Tom Stoppard have put down roots nearby, undoubtedly happily integrating themselves in the life of the region. Whether the annual influx of wealthy culture-vultures and young Americans, taking over the nightlife and driving prices up, will remain in the long-term benefit of Lacoste remains to be seen.
The village at sunset
Within the château walls
The Marquis de Sade's château
© Alain Hocquel Coll. CDT Vaucluse