Cardin’s Space Age Fashion Touches Down in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Museum is celebrating the 70-year career of fashion pioneer, Italian-born French designer Pierre Cardin, in a retrospective from July 20 through January 5, 2020.
Haute Couture, Winter 1968. © Pierre Cardin Archives

Like Saturn and its rings, the silhouette’s circular motion reveals looped strips of orange crepe and wool rising up around a short, sleeveless sheath dress. Ethereal, geometric, and dynamic, this 1969 piece known as “Car Wash” by French designer Pierre Cardin sums up the specificity of his world: An invitation to a cosmic journey.

The stylist and businessman was the standard-bearer of a generation, an avant-garde provocateur, a genius designer, and the last giant of the couture world. This self-proclaimed “modern Marco Polo” revolutionized fashion and will be celebrating his 97th birthday in July. And while the planet will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first steps on the moon on July 20 of this year, the Brooklyn Museum will be looking back at Cardin’s 70-year career in one of the biggest retrospectives ever created for him.

Raquel Welch in a Pierre Cardin ensemble in 1970. © Terry O'Neill

Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion is chronological, running from the 1940s up until the present day, showcasing some 170 pieces including 85 outfits, dozens of hats, shoes, and accessories, along with jewelry sets and designer furniture, most of which are from the Musée Cardin in Paris. “I want people to come away from the show having a new appreciation for Cardin, realizing his designs are on the level of the highest couture houses we think of today,” says Matthew Yokobosky, the curator of the New York retrospective. Pierre Cardin “is one of the most famous names in the world, but we don’t know why, and we don’t know where the origins of that fame are from.”

A video of Pierre Cardin, Jean Paul Gaultier’s mentor, first caught his attention during the preparation of the exhibit on the fashion world’s enfant terrible in 2013. Convinced that Brooklyn needed its own mega-retrospective on this “man so ahead of his time,” the curator garnered support from his director, Anne Pasternak, and from the French industrial group Chargeurs. Established in the United States and with a strong presence in the fashion sector, Chargeurs is also the owner of France-Amérique Magazine.

Pierre Cardin in 2012. © Archives Pierre Cardin

Pierre Cardin was born in 1922, the youngest of six in a family of Venetian farmers who fled to France in the wake of fascism. He decided he would become a star of the fashion world at the age of eight. At 14, he began his career as an apprentice at Chez Bompuis, a tailor in Saint-Etienne, before working in Vichy at the age of 17 and moving to Paris in 1945. After jobs in the studios of Jeanne Paquin, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Christian Bérard, for whom he made masks and costumes for Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, he became the head tailor at Christian Dior. He spent three years in this role, contributing to the New Look revolution and the success of the legendary Bar suit. Buoyed by this experience, the driven young man launched his own brand in 1950, specializing in stage costumes and ball gowns. His boldness, inventiveness, and sense of detail and cut were an instant hit. In 1952, he revolutionized the wool coat with his “red sun pleat” model, now exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum. He released his first collection in 1953, caused a stir in 1954 with his bubble dress, designed outfits for Jackie Kennedy in 1957, then rewrote the codes of men’s fashion with “jackets you could use to loosen bolts on a car, but also wear at the Windsor.”

Frustrated by the couture world, which he considered too limited and elitist, the former tailor-created his first ready-to-wear line for Parisian department store Printemps in 1959, sparking an uproar in this corseted milieu. This bold move brought high fashion and designer cuts to the masses. Conservatives turned their back on him, but others bought into his vision. Department stores all over the world were soon stocking his womenswear line, followed by his menswear pieces. To take advantage of globalization while preventing potential copies of his creations, Pierre Cardin built an empire of license contracts. Through these arrangements, subcontractors could buy the rights to sell products under the Cardin name. This included clothing, fragrances, and watches, later followed by hundreds of spin-off products, from matches to the now-iconic tins of sardines. Driven by freedom and anti-conformism, the designer confidently rid himself of the couture calendar and aesthetic references to the past.

Cosmocorps collection, 1967. © Archives Pierre Cardin

Like André Courrèges, a former engineer also inhabited by a desire for discovery during the Space Age, Pierre Cardin drew on images from this era to reinvent shapes and materials, create more relaxed cuts, and redefine the visual codes of modernity. Pierre Cardin “was super important in creating futuristic-looking fashion,” says Valerie Steele, chief curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. “The French never really had a youth culture the way Britain and America did, so they had to come up with a futuristic metaphor for youth. He did all his Space Age-looking fashion with new materials, different kinds of plastic. And, very importantly, he was looking into somewhat unisex fashions as well, just like Courrèges, such as women in trousers. He also did very futuristic menswear, which was not worn much but certainly had a great visual impact in magazines of the time.”

Refusing to systematically match clothing with the lines of the body, Pierre Cardin and his contemporaries innovated and drew inspiration from recent technological and scientific advances to create new structures, materials, and forms, many of which can be seen in the unisex Cosmocorps collection. Plastic — the king of consumer society — as well as vinyl, Plexiglas, metal, and Cardine, a synthetic material made using Dynel fibers, all enabled him to sculpt the silhouettes of the future: Molded triangles running from hip to knee in a redefinition of the curves of the female body (see Lauren Bacall’s Cardine dress), short woolen tunic dresses with “moon” holes cut out for each breast and worn over skin-tight leotards, galactic sequins, and miniskirts attached to the neckline with geometric shapes.

Cardine collection, 1968. © Archives Pierre Cardin

Circles, those symbols of infinity and the “fascinating cosmos,” are ubiquitous throughout the exhibit: In Yokobosky’s presentation featuring 16-feet-high circular platforms; in a section of his Target dress worn in the 1960s by Hiroko Matsumoto, his famous Japanese muse; in large rhinestone hoops on breathtaking evening gowns; the wings on a 1993 Butterfly cocktail dress in lamé jersey; the Mandarin collars worn by the Beatles; the detail on the shoulder pads of a “football” coat from the 1980s; the curve of jackets with Pagoda shoulders from the 1970s, and even the curve of a lacquered half- moon chest of drawers on a bronze base. Obsessed with this elementary shape found in human cells and satellites, the artist-tailor even purchased Palais Bulles, an extravagantly curved edifice on the Côte d’Azur in France.

Pierre Cardin is now celebrated by retrospectives the world over and has inspired the leading names in fashion and design, such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Paco Rabanne, and Philippe Starck. And yet at the age of 97, the couturier and member of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts remains a fiercely independent man who still marches to the beat of his own drum. A reference for all fashion students but criticized for his licensing extravagances, the inventor of ready-to-wear has become a business and real estate tycoon now absent from the leading luxury retailers in New York. In an interview for France-Amérique, his close associate Jean-Pascal Hesse said that Pierre Cardin was proud of the “multi-faceted, gigantic world” he has created. But if we were to remember a single thing about this star of planet fashion, it would be that “he is a true designer, but remains, inescapably, an artisan!”

Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion

From July 20, 20212, through January 5, 2020
Brooklyn Museum
Brooklyn, New York

Article published in the July 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.