Man Of Many Trades

Obituary | Pierre Cardin may have been known as a fashion designer, but he would be remembered for doing much, much more

Photo: Pierre Cardin

Louis Vuitton’s first restaurant, Le Café V, at its Osaka flagship Maison Osaka Midosuji, Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, Rei Kawakubo’s (now discontinued and highly collectible) furniture for the home, Hermès custom-made mahjong table, Dolce e Gabbana kitchen appliances, Bottega Veneta Intrecciato suede cushions, Versace dog bed, Balenciaga beach towels, Chanel boomerang and tennis racket, Berluti dumbbells, Prada water bottle—these are nothing unusual today. But they might not have been so if not for one man: Pierre Cardin, who died in Paris, barely three days before this upsetting year will end, according to Agence France-Presse. No cause of death was given. He was 98.

That short list above of non-fashion products conceived by fashion designers—now considered essential to luxury branding—does not take into consideration attendant merchandise such as accessories, bags, footwear, and makeup. That brands such as Louis Vuitton operating more like department stores than mere fashion boutique can be directly or indirectly traced to Mr Cardin. The first to turn his name into a label beyond fashion, he has allowed his moniker to be used on so many products that no one is really counting, or wishes to. For years at the height of his career, he claimed that his trademark enjoyed 800 licenses in 140 countries. Throughout his career, in particular after his “Space Age” halcyon days, Mr Cardin was often derided for having his name on some (many?) undeniably tacky products. But he didn’t care. As he told The New York Times in 2002, still defiant at age 80, “If someone asked me to do toilet paper, I’d do it. Why not?”

Pierre Cardin at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961. Photo: Getty Images

Pierre Cardin was born Pietro Costante Cardin in the commune of San Biagio di Callalta, near Treviso, northern Italy, where Benetton and Diadora are headquartered. At age two, his parents moved the family to France, in the industrial town of Saint-Étienne, reportedly to get away from the intensifying fascism of Italy in the mid-Twenties. In his teens, his father, then a wine merchant, wanted him to study architecture, but Mr Cardin preferred to pursue fashion, which he had developed an intense love for since an early age. By 14, he was interning for (un-named) fashion brands and at 17, he moved to Vichy in central France to become a tailor at Manby, a men’s shop, where it was said that he made suits for women. After World War II, Pierre Cardin relocated to Paris, where, to his father’s pleasure, he studied architecture. Fashion, however, never left him. He soon worked for Jeanne Paquin, and then moved on to Elsa Schiaparelli, before securing a place at Christian Dior where he was put in charged of the tailleur side of the couture atelier. Western journalists often note that Mr Cardin was never employed by Balenciaga.

In 1950, three years after Christian Dior’s “the New Look”, Pierre Cardin established his own fashion house, with couture shown in 1953, followed by what would be his best known dress shape in 1954, the “bubble dress”—a short-skirted, cocktail number, cut on a bias, and shaped over a stiffened base. By the ’60s, in tandem with the decade’s space race, Mr Cardin’s clothes departed dramatically from his couture beginnings. It was the era that Diana Vreeland called “Youthquake”. Just as today’s young consumers might find Kim Jones’s work hip, many during the decade they called “swinging” considered Pierre Cardin’s space-age-y dresses with cut-outs or geometric appliques deliciously cool and, simultaneously, provocative. But Mr Cardin was not the only one exploring design concepts related to what the future might be like. There, too, were André Courrèges and Paco Robanne. But unlike the rest of the French fashion establishment, Mr Cardin actually pursued his “space” ambitions. He was, in 1969, the first civilian to try on the Apollo 11 space suit that Neil Armstrong wore on his walk on the moon. After that, he even designed a space suit for NASA. Whether that was put to use in outer space, we don’t know.

Pierre Cardin Great Wall of China show, 2018. Photos: Pierre Cardin

Pierre Cardin was also credited for his foray into pret-a-porter, when he designed a collection for the Paris department store Au Printemps in 1959. Today, we might see such a commercial move as disruption, or a precursor to Karl Lagerfeld designing for H&M, but back then it annoyed the hell out of the establishment. It was, to them, a positive downgrade; a cop-out. In fact, much of what we know today as “masstige” could be attributed to Pierre Cardin, including the use of the logo as part of the design, at first just PC, which appeared as early as 1960. In the ’70s and onwards, licensing increasingly became the name of the game for him. As the number grew larger, the products that were churned out, for the most part, crossed over to the crass. His own designs started to look like they never left the ’60s, or went beyond 1975. The “futurism” of the Cardin years, like many trends of the era, fizzled out, and it became truly hard to pin cool to the brand when somewhere in the less posh part of any city, a Pierre Cardin keyring can be had for less than tips left at a restaurant for service staff. By the ’80s, Pierre Cardin the brand swung between staggeringly expensive couture gowns and cheap boxer shorts.

His persistence with pret-a-porter caused a riff with the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture: in 1959, after the Au Printemp stunt, they kicked him out. But as other designers saw the potential of ready-to-wear and were willing to embrace it, the Chambre Syndicale eventually invited him back, but in 1966, he resigned, and quit Paris Fashion Week altogether, to show at his own time and in his own space—the former Théâtre des Ambassadeurs, which he bought and converted to L’Espace Cardin. While he was a formidable businessman, buying up real estate as he became wealthier, Mr Cardin was not without a legacy of technical innovation. His clothes may have appeared rather naively futuristic, but more progressive was the development of a heat-molded, synthetic fabric, called Cardine, which was used to lend his mini-dresses their rigidity, on which geometric/abstract shapes were embossed or cut out. In 1981, F&B business was added to his portfolio: he bought the Parisian restaurant Maxim’s, followed by the licensing of food under the 142-year-old name.

Hiroko Matsumoto in Pierre Cardin, 1960s. Photo: Pierre Cardin

Somewhat rare among his peers was Pierre Cardin’s affinity to Asia. His first acquaintance with this part of the world was in Japan, where he was appointed professor emeritus at Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo in 1958, which would be around the time a young Kenzo Takada attended the school. It isn’t known if Mr Cardin taught Mr Takada, but it was established that both became close friends in Paris (Jean Paul Gaultier, who started at the house of Cardin, was the other intimate fashion designer pal). Mr Cardin’s time in Japan opened Asia to him, and allowed him to establish a presence in the country. He would be so enchanted with Japanese culture, aesthetics and, in particular, beauty that he struck up a long-lasting friendship with Japanese model Hiroko Matsumoto (1936—2003), and tempted her to go to Paris with him. Ms Matsumoto became not only his house mannequin (believed to be the first for a French fashion house), she was a muse too—and an Asian, which was considered extremely unusual at that time.

In 1979, he visited China, where he staged a fashion show at the Beijing National Culture Palace, marking, for the first time, the presence of an international fashion label in the capital city. The brand left such a lasting impression in China that the Global Times wrote in an obituary today that “Pierre Cardin was regarded as the peak of Western fashion.” Since that first show, the house has continued to exhibit in China, including a 2007 production on the desert of Whistling Sand Mountain in Gansu Province, 2018’s forty-years-in-China show on the Great Wall (Fendi, too, used the world longest wall for their show in 2020. The Italian label staged theirs at the more stunning Juyongguan Pass, while the French at the more commercial Badaling section), and early this year’s Qinhuangdao sea-side event in Hebei. Mr Cardin had his eyes on other Asian countries as well. In the Philippines, he gave the national costume (for men), the barong tagalog, a makeover in 1971, effectively modernising what was a rather fancy special-occasion shirt. In India, apart from the fashion, the biggest and most desirable item to own was the Pierre Cardin pen (with its own dedicated website!), first introduced in 1994. As “merchant to the masses”, it was clear that Pierre Cardin made sure that, even after his death, his name will live on… and on, and in ink too.