The Countless Lives of Pierre Cardin

He dressed Naomi Campbell, Sharon Stone, and the Beatles. He designed the interior of a famous American sports car, stepped into Buzz Aldrin’s spacesuit, and posed bare-chested on the cover of Time. Pierre Cardin, the all-rounder, was the subject of a remarkable exhibition of his fashion creations at the Brooklyn Museum last year, and is now the focus of an in-depth U.S. documentary, House of Cardin, available on demand.
Pierre Cardin surrounded by his models in Paris, 1970. © Pierre Vauthey/Sygma/Getty Images

In 1970, the couturier bought the venerable Théâtre des Ambassadeurs, a former cabaret in the Champs-Elysées neighborhood, and transformed it into a contemporary culture center called the Espace Cardin. The space hosted the first French performances of American director Bob Wilson and Detroit rock star Alice Cooper, who shocked the prudish public of the time with his outrageous outfits and the boa constrictor he wore constantly around his neck! The designer was not partial to his music, as he told Californian documentary filmmakers P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, but he was won over by the singer’s scandalous character. “Banality bores me,” he likes to say. “I am not someone who accepts things that are already acceptable.”

At the age of 98, fashion’s most tireless designer is still sweeping aside overly comfortable ideas. What’s more, “he is still part of the action,” according to his communications director Jean-Pascal Hesse, author of the Cardin anthology published by Assouline in 2017. “That is what keeps him in such a great shape, despite his grand old age.” Living up to his reputation, Cardin inaugurated last August the 20th edition of the lyrical arts, theater, and cinema festival, which he founded in the Château de Lacoste, a property once owned by the Marquis de Sade. He is also currently supervising the restoration of a dairy in Houdan in the Yvelines département, set to house a new cultural center.

But where does fashion come into it? In fact, fashion is the cornerstone of the House of Cardin documentary, the artistic testament of a discreet man. Viewers are taken through archive footage of interviews and shows at breakneck speed, shifting from one era to the next like a model changing outfits backstage. In one sequence, Cardin gives a tour of his museum in the 4th arrondissement of Paris to a group of student designers, and shows them the 1952 red wool Plissé Soleil coat, his first success on the American market with 200,000 pieces sold. In another, he describes his fascination for the “lunar era” and pres-ents his Cosmocorps collection with its geometric shapes, launched five years before the first Moon landing.

Head in the Stars

In October 1969, Cardin visited the NASA research center in Houston. So the story goes, he asked the astronauts what their secret was for staying chic in zero gravity, before slipping the security guard a fifty-dollar bill to let him try on Buzz Aldrin’s space-suit! Starry-eyed and still wearing his necktie, he posed for a photo. “In some way, he is the extraterrestrial of the fashion world, a sort of man-in-the-moon who thinks in circles, spirals, and hemispheres, as if roundness was his ultimate priority,” says Laurence Benaïm, Yves Saint-Laurent’s biographer. In a world of sharp, clear-cut angles, Cardin preferred the circle and its promise of infinity.

Pierre Cardin at NASA’s research center in Houston, 1969. © Archives Pierre Cardin

The documentary features several testimonies from celebrities, including superstar model Naomi Campbell, actress Sharon Stone, Vanity Fair journalist Amy Fine Collins, and Alexandra Sachs, who directs the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta. Fashion behemoth Jean-Paul Gaultier and designer Philippe Starck recount how Cardin helped kickstart their careers, while American diva Dionne Warwick – who posed in a Cardin dress on the cover of her album Make Way for Dionne Warwick – applauds the designer’s decision to showcase “international” models on the runway during the 1960s. “This diversity was quite refreshing,” she says. “He decided that it was okay to use Japanese models and people who looked like me, with brown skin.”

The couturier himself is also featured. Cardin is a private man and happily hides behind his logo, ignoring editors begging for a biography. However, he gave unprecedented access to the two directors, who followed him for a whole year between 2017 and 2018. Sporting ruffled white hair and crooked glasses, he tells his story to the camera, remembering his native Italy, his first experience in fashion as an apprentice tailor in Vichy during World War II, and his beginnings in Paris after the Liberation, first at Paquin, then at Christian Dior. He was Dior’s head tailor and helped create the New Look before striking out on his own in 1950. “Dior helped me open my own house,” he says. “Everyone dreamed of being supported by Christian Dior at the time. And I was the one he chose.”

Pierre Cardin at Maxim’s, the Paris restaurant he acquired in 1981, during the filming of the House of Cardin documentary. © The Ebersole Hughes Company

Fashion for All

In 1959, Cardin dragged haute couture out of private showrooms… and enshrined it at the Printemps department store! He was the first designer to welcome ready-to-wear into his work (Saint Laurent followed suit seven years later), and his approach sparked a scandal. He was excluded from the French haute couture trade association and temporarily banned from fashion shows. “All of Paris was against me. It was unthinkable at the time to make clothes for housekeepers and the Duchess of Windsor. But that’s what I liked. My goal was to dress the masses. Design should be aimed at as many people as possible.”

This may explain his keen taste for spin-off products – a move some have criticized. “Reproduction offers more advantages,” he once said. “I earn more money on a tie than on a dress sold for a million [francs].” Cardin was the first couturier to be elected into the Académie des Beaux-Arts, but that has not stopped him from turning his brand to sunglasses, watches, bath towels, dominos, skis, and even cars! In the early 1970s, the American Motors Corporation commissioned him to design the interior of its latest sports car, the Javelin. Cardin’s multicolored stripes made it an immediate collectible. The 1972 white model that appears in the film is actually owned by the directors.

“Even as fans, we had no idea who Pierre Cardin really was before meeting him in Paris,” say P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, who have both been collecting his spin-off products since 2014. The couple were looking for a coffee table to decorate their Palm Springs home “in the style of the movie Barbarella” when they discovered one of his futuristic pieces of furniture – a white, lacquered “utilitarian sculpture.” After finding gems on eBay and Etsy, they “became obsessed with Pierre Cardin; we have all the albums from his music label, his flatware, and even the man-shaped mirror featured on the Time cover!”

Pierre Cardin on the cover of Time in 1974. The United States recognized the couturier as a businessman. © Eddie Adams/2020 Time USA, LLC. All Rights Reserved

A Captain of Industry

In December 1974, Cardin posed bare-chested on the cover of the American weekly magazine. Journalist Amy Fine Collins saw this as “proof of the fact he was well regarded, not just as a designer of frivolities for women, but also as an empire builder.” He had just launched his first perfume, Pour Monsieur, whose phallic bottle shocked America, and was about to buy Maxim’s. After acquiring the Parisian Belle Epoque flagship brasserie, he transformed it into an international symbol, opening associated hotels, restaurants, and souvenir stores from New York to Shanghai. The jewel in the crown of this empire was the Maxim’s des Mers, an American minelayer built during World War II, which Cardin converted into a luxury liner. It crossed the Atlantic in 1986 to celebrate the centenary of the Statue of Liberty’s inauguration.

But the ship was abandoned in the early 2000s and the restaurants closed one after another. The only ones left today are those in Beijing and Tianjin in China. Back in Paris, while the establishment on the Rue Royale is still just as popular with international tourists, the success is largely down to the red chocolate boxes popularized by Cardin. “By putting his name on extremely humble objects, he enabled brands to do the same thing,” says designer Philippe Starck. “He opened Pandora’s box.”

As a marketing pioneer, Cardin also freed the female body from the constraints of clothing and form. He used new synthetic materials that required minimal upkeep such as vinyl and “cardine,” a malleable textile invented by the fashion magician himself. In one fell swoop, he liberated fashion from its dogmas. He innovated by launching ready-to-wear for men (he even did some modeling in post-war Paris and appeared on the runway with his models in 1960!), and was the first to export his collections to Soviet Russia and Mao’s China, prefiguring globalization. Cardin also wielded considerable influence in the theater and cinema worlds. His costumes for Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels and the TV series The Avengers set a precedent. “Pierre Cardin is a French monument,” says Laurence Benaïm. “He is the history of fashion, someone who embodies both the past and the present.” According to Jean-Paul Gaultier, who bid farewell to fashion shows last January, Cardin was a master: “He has an all-encompassing vision. He is an emperor. A genius.”

Article published in the October 2020 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.