Pierre Cardin, fashion’s Great Democrat who died at the age of 98 in Paris on Tuesday, believed everyone deserved a bit of style no matter where they lived, and no matter if it was only on the cover of a sardine tin.
During his 70-year career, Cardin became one of the most celebrated and at the same time reviled figures in the fashion world. He was justly applauded for his creative vision. His ex-assistant Jean Paul Gaultier told Laurence Benaïm, founder of Stiletto magazine, “with him, I learned you could make a hat from a chair”.
One of the pioneers of space-age fashion, Cardin was also condemned for his unabashed embrace of licensing, and his willingness to put his name on everything from ties to toilet paper. Indeed, as fashion consolidated and industrialised in the 1990s, “Cardin” became shorthand for the way in which a brand could be devalued by overexposure.
Not that the designer cared. “I don’t have anything to prove,” he told trade publication Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) in 2008.
Indeed, from the beginning he made a practice out of thumbing his nose at conventional wisdom.
The youngest of 11 children, Pierre Cardin was born outside Venice in 1922 and studied architecture in Saint-Étienne, France. He came to Paris in 1945 to work in the haute couture ateliers of Paquin (then led by Antonio Castillo), Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior, where he helped sew the dresses that became the basis of the revolutionary “New Look”.
Four years after opening his eponymous fashion house in 1950, he enlivened the fashion world with his “bubble dress”, a design whose fitted bodice and full, gathered skirt became one of the predominant cocktail dress silhouettes of the decade. Other designers became envious. “[Coco Chanel] was jealous of me,” Cardin told L’Officiel earlier this year. “I was extremely handsome, young, and talented. And she was, well, of a certain age.”
Three years after that he introduced menswear, and in 1959 he was thrown out of the Chambre Syndicale (now the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode), French fashion’s governing body, for staging the first ever ready-to-wear show at the department store Printemps. (He was invited back three years later when his vision turned out to have been not subversive, but prescient.) “Why should I work only for rich people?” he asked at the time. “I want to work for people in the street.”
He also believed fashion was not just for the French, and became the first designer to go to Japan in 1959, followed by trips to China in 1978 and Russia in 1987. And he was the first to agree to license his name outside fashion, designing everything from china to ballpoint pens and caviar.
By 2008 he had 900 licences. This enabled him to, as he said, “live my life entirely within my empire” — eat off his own china, see art at his own galleries, go to shows at his own theatres, and sleep in his own hotels. It also made him one of the wealthiest men in France.
Though Cardin was honoured with the Légion d’Honneur in 1997, as well as being named a member of the Académie Française, and although the wives of ex-presidents Jacques Chirac and Georges Pompidou wore his clothes, the designer always felt he was not given the respect in his adopted country that he achieved abroad. In a 2003 poll taken in the US by WWD, for example, his was named among the top 10 most recognised brands.
In the final decades of his life he increasingly retreated to the protection of the world he had constructed on the stretch of the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, behind the Elysée Palace. This included numerous buildings for his store and offices, as well as Maxim’s restaurant and hotel — he had bought Maxim’s — and the nearby theatre complex Espace Cardin. In 2004 he announced he was giving up fashion to “devote myself fully to . . . art and cultural charity”.
As he never married (though he did have a notorious affair with the actress Jeanne Moreau in the 1960s) and had no children, Cardin began to search for a buyer for his couture brand in the late 1980s, telling journalists he would not entertain any offers below €1bn — a figure analysts have long considered excessive.
“I can afford to die without selling it,” he told Bloomberg in 2016. By the time he died, no purchaser had been announced (his famous Antti Lovag-designed “Bubble Palace” near Cannes also remains for sale, price on request).
From July 2019 to January of this year, Cardin was the subject of a solo retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, which showcased his designs for furniture and lighting as well as fashion.
Another area where Cardin proved prescient was China, where the Cardin brand remains popular. The designer was invited by the government to stage a production at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics.
Today, China is the world’s third-largest and fastest growing luxury goods market. As Ms Benaïm wrote: “He has always done things before the others.”