Pierre Cardin - from the catwalk to the warpath

Fashion designer Pierre Cardin has bought up houses in an idyllic French village and turned it into a 'cultural St Tropez'. The locals are not happy. Rob Hastings reports

He may have fashioned a career out of creating beautiful things, but when it comes to spats with his neighbours the clothes designer Pierre Cardin is not afraid to turn ugly.

It is a decade since the Parisian master of haute couture bought the Provençal castle that once belonged to the Marquis de Sade, and delighted in the chateau's views over the Luberon valley.

For some of the villagers living beneath the castle in the hillside cottages of Lacoste, however, his residence has been less pleasurable.

They have been busy telling anyone who will listen that his campaign to turn their small scattering of buildings into a "cultural St Tropez" may have opened cafés and brought in tourists, but has also turned their community into an empty, gentrified shell.

Now Cardin has taken a bitter swipe at what he sees as their ungrateful complaints.

"Personally I pay no attention to what the people say. They are just jealous," he said in a television interview this weekend. "After all, what have they ever done for Lacoste? Absolutely nothing."

The locals say that, besides the castle, Cardin has bought up 22 other properties in the village – some of which he has turned into art galleries – leaving those who are left with only memories of the friends and the quiet, idyllic rural community that once called those buildings home. Cardin, whose designs have a distinctive, avante-garde style, has also installed a variety of expensive works of art in the village. The film star John Malkovich owns a vineyard in the valley below.

It appears the villagers' refusal to acknowledge the benefits of Cardin's investment, which has brought an annual arts festival and plenty of new business to Lacoste, is wearing the millionaire's patience increasingly thin – not that he has any regrets.

"I buy the house because the place is extraordinary," he told the BBC. "You can see it's one of the best situations in the Luberon." The resentment has been brewing for some time, last spilling over two years ago when Cardin outlined his grand vision for the area.

"I can't force people to sell me their homes," he said. "They sell because they want to sell. I plan to make this village into a cultural St Tropez, without its showbiz side. I want to restore its authentic glamour, its truth."

That does not hold much sway with the villagers, one of whom told The Independent at the time: "As far as he is concerned, we are all 'les petits gens', the little people. He regards himself as a kind of feudal seigneur. No one else's opinion matters."

Though it is of little solace to the modern-day residents of Lacoste, the current conflict between the villagers and the owner of the castle overlooking them is of little in comparison to that inflicted on their forebears by the Marquis de Sade. The 18th-century aristocratic author, so famous for his sexual deviance and perversion that his name became synonymous with taking pleasure at witnessing others in pain, would abuse young servants recruited from the local area for his gratification. The Marquis' writings, such as 120 Days of Sodom, are still officially banned.

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