Pierre Cardin: A Futurist, Rather Than Fashionist

Pierre Cardin: A Futurist, Rather Than Fashionist

“Fashion is not enough,” Pierre Cardin once told  Eugenia Sheppard, the American newspaper columnist and fashion critic. “I don’t want to be just a designer.” 

True to those words, in a career spanning more than three-quarters of a century, Cardin was a consummate merchandiser and futurist of styles.

From the early 1960s to well into the 2000s, he was a visionary designer who not only clothed the elite but also transformed the business of fashion, reaching the masses by affixing his name to merchandise ranging from off-the-rack apparel to bath towels. He was also a licensing pioneer, a merchant to the general public with his name on a cornucopia of products, none too exalted or too humble to escape his avid eye.

In postwar Europe, Cardin was renowned with his futurist designs that looked like they had arrived from another planet.

“I was very influenced by the satellites, by the moon, by the entire cosmos, by astronauts,” he said in 2010. “My first designs were based on the moon.”

Not surprisingly, his death, at the age of 98 on December 29, 2020 from reasons not immediately disclosed, led to a flood of tributes from the world of haute couture. 

“His inspiration boosted my imagination,” Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, the artistic director of Benetton, told AFP. 

Cardin was “a very extraordinary man”, who did not set borders between fashion, design or architecture, and who regarded marketing and promotion of his art “as important as the art itself”, de Castelbajac said.

Jean-Paul Gaultier, the so-called “enfant terrible” of the French fashion world, paid tribute to a man who employed him in the early stages of his career.

“Thank you Monsieur Cardin for opening the doors to fashion and making my dream possible,” Gaultier wrote on Twitter.

Cardin’s designs included bubble dresses and aviator jumpsuits, fragrances and automobiles, ashtrays and even pickle jars. Planting his flag on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, he proceeded to turn the country’s fashion establishment on its head, reproducing fashions for mass, ready-to-wear consumption and dealing a blow to the elitism that had governed the Parisian couture.

As the space age dawned, Cardin dressed men, and women, in spacesuits. In 1969, NASA commissioned him to create an interpretation of a spacesuit, a signal inspiration in his later work. “The dresses I prefer,” he said at the time, “are those I invent for a life that does not yet exist.”

His designs were influenced by geometric shapes, often rendered in fabrics like silver foil, paper and brightly colored vinyl. The materials would shape the dominant aesthetic of the early 1960s. 

“I’m always inspired by something outside, not by the body itself,” Cardin told The New York Times in 1985. Clothing, he said, was meant “to give the body its shape, the way a glass gives shape to the water poured into it.”

Yet his men’s ready-to-wear designs, introduced in 1960, were decidedly more faithful to the body’s outlines. Built on narrow shoulders, high armholes and a fitted waist, they were streamlined and somewhat severe, dispensing in some cases with traditional collars in favor of the simple banded Nehru, a namesake adaptation of the style worn by the Indian prime minister.

Those suits were slow to catch on in the United States — until the Beatles appeared in knock-off versions on the Ed Sullivan television show in 1966. Nehru-mania ensued.

Cardin had laid the foundations for a global empire by the late 1950s. At a time when France was fashion’s uncontested epicenter, he was bringing his designs to Moscow, Tokyo and Beijing, doing more to erode international boundaries than any designer of the day.

In 1957, he became the first to forge business ties with Japan, and within two years he was selling his fashions there. He sensed a vast, untapped market for fashionable clothing in Central Europe and Asia, and by the end of the 1960s he was offering his designs for mass production in China. In 1983, Cardin became the first French couturier to penetrate the Soviet Union: His designs were manufactured in Soviet factories and sold under the Cardin label in Cardin boutiques in Moscow.

He conceived of himself above all as a prolific ideas man, relishing his role as the overseer of a realm that encompassed clothing accessories, furniture, household products and fragrances sold through some 800 licensees in more than 140 countries on five continents.

“I wash with my own soap,” he once boasted. “I wear my own perfume, go to bed with my own sheets, have my own food products. I live on me.”

Chocolates, pens, cigarettes, frying pans, alarm clocks and cassette tapes — all bore the Cardin logo, as did shoes, lingerie, blouses, neckwear, wallets, belts and, more recently, an Android tablet. By the mid-1980s, Cardin stood at the helm of a marketing organization and network of licensees paying him royalties of 5 to 12 percent, a stream of income that earned him the unofficial title “the Napoleon of licensors.”

“I was born an artiste,” he told The Times in 1987, “but I am a businessman.”

Not content to preside over an omnipresent global brand, Cardin turned his rapacious attention to theaters and motels, media and even restaurants, in 1981 buying Maxim’s, once the world’s most famous restaurant, a landmark of the belle époque on the Rue Royale in Paris.

Two years later, as part of an international expansion, Maxim’s opened its first branch in Beijing, prompting Cardin to exult, with his sense of a limitless future, “If I can put a Maxim’s in Beijing, I can put a Maxim’s on the moon.”

Pierre Cardin with models posing jewelry designed by him in a 1969 collection (Associated Press)

Pietro Costante Cardin was born on July 7, 1922, in San Biagio di Callalta, Italy, near Venice, where his parents were vacationing. He grew up in Saint-Étienne, in east central France, where his father was a wine merchant.

Pierre’s impatience with convention asserted itself early. In his early teens he deflected his father’s efforts to induct him into the family trade. In deference to his evident artistic ambitions, his parents eventually enrolled him in architectural studies at the school of Saint-Étienne.

Cardin, who was captivated by the worlds of theater and ballet, first dreamed of acting, but was later drawn to designing costumes and sets for the stage.

In 1936,  he left for Vichy. By 14, he was assisting a local tailor named Manby. Impatient to embark on a fashion career, he was 17 and preparing to head to Paris when World War II erupted, and he enlisted. During the war he took an administrative position in the French Red Cross, a job he later credited with fostering a latent talent for tallying balance sheets.

He returned to Paris in 1945, intent on establishing himself as a designer. He apprenticed at several prominent fashion houses, among them Paquin and Elsa Schiaparelli. From 1946 to 1950, he designed coats and suits for Christian Dior. During that period he continued to indulge his passion for theater and cinema, designing costumes, based on the sketches of Christian Bérard, for the Jean Cocteau film “Beauty and the Beast.”

Toward the end of his couture apprenticeship he alighted on an opportunity to found his own fashion house when a theatrical costumer with an attic workshop in the Madeleine neighborhood shuttered his business. Cardin moved in and began designing under his own name, buying additional floors of the building each year until he owned it in its entirety.

His first collection for the House of Cardin, established in 1950, featured suits and coats modeled in heavyweight wool with emphatic details and the geometric shapes and cutouts that were to become hallmarks of his collections. They included, most memorably, his barrel coat with an oversized wool collar in 1955 and his balloon dresses in 1959.

Fashion designer Pierre Cardin posed with models in his studio. (PIERRE VAUTHEY/SYGMA/GETTY IMAGES)

In 1958, Cardin was chosen as professor emeritus at Bunka Fashion College in Japan, an association that afforded him the opportunity to forge business relations with the Japanese. On returning to Paris, he created his first ready-to-wear collection, which made its debut in 1959 in the department store Le Printemps.

Cardin’s impetuous departure from couture tradition earned him the ire of his peers and expulsion from the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne. But he remained unmoved. Arguing that French manufacturers were already copying his creations, he asked, “Why shouldn’t we run the show?” He was reinstated some years later after other designers began to recognize the potential profitability of ready-to-wear.

In 1960 he defied the Chambre Syndicale once more, designing a men’s ready-to-wear collection of slim-fitted suits. By the mid-60s, he had elongated and slimmed down his men’s silhouette, adding low-slung trousers fitted at the waist and flared at the cuffs. Cardin, whose high-profile clients included Cecil Beaton, Yul Brynner and Gregory Peck, argued that the style “brings out the best in a man’s figure.” During that period, his space-age inflected women’s couture was widely copied, generating knockoffs around the world.

By the late ’60s, he was offering women trouser suits and maxi skirts. “The eye is ready for it,” he told Marilyn Bender of The Times in October 1969, “now that pants have been accepted.”

Cardin’s ventures that year extended to automotive designs and home furnishings. A Simca with a Cardin-designed interior was presented at the Paris auto show. He made good on his vow to place the Cardin imprimatur on a total environment, creating a plastic modular desk that could be disassembled and then refit like a puzzle into a cube. A new chair design was made using foam rubber covered in vinyl; it changed, accordion like, from a couch to a child’s chair.

In 1970 he bought a faded Paris nightclub, Théâtre des Ambassadeurs, on the Champs-Élysées, gutting and rebuilding it and turning it into L’Espace Cardin, where he presented his fashions and showed art works, movies and contemporary plays.

He neither boasted of his protean ambitions nor apologized for them. “I don’t play cards, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t like sports,” he told Ms. Bender. “I just work. It’s marvelous. It amuses me.”

His willful, sometimes autocratic manner and gaunt good looks contributed to his magnetism. Writing in The Times, Ms. Bender described a pair of “blue eyes set above high cheekbones, thinning brown hair that curled most into the collar of his green shirt, and parenthesis lines on either side of his mouth,” all of which lent him “a melancholy air,” she wrote, “reminiscent of the late Aly Khan.”

The ever-vigilant custodian of his own legend, Cardin did nothing to dispel the notion that the actress Jeanne Moreau had succumbed to his Lothario charms. Ms. Moreau herself professed her passion for Cardin to Judy Klemesrud of The Times in the fall of 1970. On meeting him at a fitting in his Paris salon in 1964, “it was love at first sight,” she recalled. “I bought every dress in his collection.”

During those years, Cardin also maintained a close relationship with Andre Oliver, his main assistant for more than 40 years, who died in Paris in 1993.

In his atelier, Cardin viewed the female body as an abstraction, a hanger of sorts. “I think of the dress,” he announced baldly. “The woman doesn’t matter.”  He forsook his hard-edge aesthetic for a time in the 1970s, incorporating draped fabrics, pleating, quilting and asymmetrical collars and hems into his designs.

His couture collection of 1986 featured entire dresses made from billowing scarves, Bernadine Morris, the Times fashion critic at the time, deemed the collection “still quite inventive,” but dismissed its various concepts as “scattered like buckshot, so they do not come together in a comprehensive statement.” Two years later she referred to a collection of short coats with wired hems as “histrionic.”

By the late 1980s and early ’90s, Cardin was revisiting his fashion archives to issue variations of 1960s space-age designs. His far-flung ventures fused the commercial and theatrical; he staged extravagant shows in Moscow’s Red Square in 1991 and a decade later in the Gobi Desert. Yet his reputation as a couturier was diminishing. By 1994, he was showing his seasonal collections primarily to a small circle of clients and journalists.

Cardin thrived nonetheless as a cultural omnivore whose eclectic interests extended from architecture to interior design and to the performance arts. As early as 1970, he told Ms. Sheppard, the fashion critic, that “I like seeing people looking at TV, seeing avant-garde plays.” Referring to the choreographer Paul Taylor, he added, “I loved the Japanese marionettes from Osaka and adore the Taylor ballets.”

His miscellaneous passions also extended to the Rolling Stones and the Doors, and the geometric Vasarely paintings that inspired his prints on wool. “If it’s little dresses people want, I can do them with my eyes closed,” he said. “But I am above all of that. My life is on an intellectual level much higher than that of La Couture.”

Cardin also produced musicals and dance, including for the Pilobolus company. At the same time, he established himself as an impresario for experimental arts groups in Paris, showing their work at L’Espace Cardin. L’Espace was the scene of Juno and Avos, a Soviet rock opera that Cardin imported to Paris in 1983.

By 1980, he had contracted licenses for matches, sardine can labels, aprons, pickle jars and clothing, establishing 500 sales outlets in France alone. He bought Maxim’s in 1981, his acquisition exciting fears among Parisians that he would exploit that fabled Gallic institution.

Through it all, Cardin remained unflappable. In the next century Maxim’s would still exist, he insisted, but “who will be remembered, Yves Saint Laurent or Pierre Cardin?”  In June 2011 he celebrated his 30th anniversary as the owner of Maxim’s, which some call his second licensing empire; products under the Maxim’s label include foie gras, 

Pierre Cardin with French actress Jeanne Moreau. (BERT STERN/CONDE NAST/GETTY IMAGES)

Unlike many designers today, whose businesses are operated by global conglomerates, Cardin had no partners. “I’m the financier, the banker and the creator,” he said. “I’ve always done what I wanted because I’ve never had a boss.”

He cautiously believed in hard assets, converting his income from licensing into land and buildings, including properties in Paris, a villa and boutique near Cannes, a palazzo in Venice and holdings in Barcelona, Milan, Rome and Brussels. He bought the castle formerly occupied by the Marquis de Sade in Lacoste, France, where he established a summer music festival. He invested in properties near Cannes, including, most memorably, the Bubble Palace,so called for its system of interconnected terra-cotta domes.

Times had changed since the international jet set flocked to Maxim’s. In 2016, he was asking roughly one billion euros ($1.4 billion) for the rights to his licensing empire. “If you don’t have the money, then don’t buy it,” he told a reporter for Bloomberg at the time. “Nobody’s forcing you to. I can afford to die without selling it.”

Cardin, who made his mark on the 20th century with prophetic, technologically inspired designs, lived to see his fashions reappraised. His collections served as the inspiration for designers like Gareth Pugh, Simon Porte Jacquemus, and to some degree, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. That he remained a force in the 21st century was attested to by Lady Gaga, who once wore one of his metallic chain-mail creations on the concert stage.

Intent on keeping that name alive, Cardin returned to the fashion world with a splash in September 2011, unveiling a spring collection replete with his signature unisex astronaut-style jumpsuits, rubber jewelry and neon, architecturally inspired mini dresses.

In 2014 he opened a museum in the Marais district of Paris to display his work, calling it the Past-Present-Future Museum.

In the summer of 2017, the Preservation Society of Newport County, in Rhode Island,  hosted a runway show at the Breakers mansion, the 90-piece spectacular serving as an introduction to “Pierre Cardin: 70 Years of Innovation,” highlighting the designer’s most admired and recognizable work. “His innovations are still relevant,” said Trudy Coxe, the chief executive of the Preservation Society, adding that the eight-month exhibition attracted well over 100,000 visitors.

Intent on burnishing his legacy, that fall Cardin opened a new boutique on the Rue Royale next door to the original Maxim’s. The styles were familiar but rendered with a brash, contemporary spin. Metal studs lent a touch of punk to a black wool mini dress; a similar look featured circular cutouts that evoked his signature futurism. “I made this line for young people,” Cardin said at the time.  “It’s quite entertaining.”

As he revisited his past couture landmarks, Cardin all the while declined to repeat himself outright. Ever venturesome, he insisted: “I design for tomorrow. I never look backward.”

* Adapted from tributes by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and AFP.

French fashion designer Pierre Cardin poses in front of his fashion creations in his museum called “Past-Present-Future” in Paris November 12, 2014. The museum shows Pierre Cardin’s 60-year career and creative passion with some 200 Couture pieces, as well as hats, shoes, pieces of jewellery and furniture. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Pierre Cardin: July 2, 1922 to Dec 29, 2020


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