“I was born an artiste,” the French couturier Pierre Cardin once declared, “but I am a businessman.”
A perennial trendsetter, Cardin, who died on Tuesday, December 29, at the age of 98, radically transformed men’s and women’s fashion in the 1960s with modern designs such as the Nehru jacket and the space-race-inspired bubble dress.
He redefined the field of commercial branding by licensing his name to products including toiletries, jewellery, luggage, candy, wine and wigs. He also bought the landmark Parisian restaurant Maxim’s and built it into an international chain of eateries, boutiques and clubs.
“It is difficult to name something that Pierre Cardin has yet to design or transform with his imprint,” fashion historian Caroline Milbank once wrote.
His death was announced by the French Academy of Fine Arts. His family told French media outlets that he died at a Paris hospital. The cause was not disclosed.
Cardin started his own fashion house in 1950 after apprenticing under designers Christian Dior and Elsa Schiaparelli. A decade later, he rose to fame by daringly blurring the lines of gender-specific fashion.
He introduced men to the Edwardian silhouette — a look composed of long, elegant jackets with wide lapels and brass buttons paired with boldly patterned shirts and ties — while also revolutionising women’s wear with geometrically abstract dresses that deliberately ignored the feminine figure, a move some think was intended to express female emancipation.
Cardin’s childhood training as a tailor’s apprentice and his work in the Dior suit and coat workroom affected his approach to menswear.
The “Cardin look” became hugely popular when Douglas Millings, a stage tailor for British rock musicians in the 1960s, dressed the Beatles in matching versions of Cardin’s Edwardian suits.
Also popularised by British celebrities was Cardin’s Nehru jacket, a hip-length coat with a mandarin collar inspired by his travels to India and Pakistan.
His timing was good for business. As the broader culture increasingly fed on the fashion trends of rock and pop stars, Cardin’s trends caught on among the middle class.
Over the years, Cardin established a tradition of quiet rebellion in the fashion industry. His designs were often demure rebukes of trends he disapproved of. The “Long Longuette”, a floor-length casual dress now called the maxi dress, was Cardin’s 1970 response to the miniskirt.
In the 1970s, he began using stretch fabric, declaring that it would “revolutionise fashion” and showed white cotton T-shirts paired with couture gowns on the runway. In 1979, he established the trend of exaggerated shoulders on women’s and menswear, a look that remains popular.
Although his work was distinctly asexual, he did not promote pants for women like some of his peers. Instead, he paired mini-dresses with bold, solid stockings, a look now commonly referred to as “mod”.
Cardin was perhaps most known for his avant-garde cosmos-inspired collection of 1966. As the world’s focus turned to space exploration in the 1960s, the fashion industry underwent massive technological changes in fabric production. The collection, which used vinyl and metal and created trends such as the bubble dress, was a wild interpretation of these cultural shifts.
Cardin was once asked if he was “strung out on LSD” when creating the collection.
“Oh, no,” he responded. “Astronauts and satellites were all the rage in the 1960s, and I had always wondered what people would wear if they lived on the moon.”
Ultimately, Cardin balanced nonconformity — he pushed for men to wear neck scarves and turtlenecks instead of ties and button-down shirts — with classic tradition; he was known by many as the best suit maker in the industry.
“If you saw his clothes without the label, you would know exactly who they were,” said George Simonton, a professor of apparel design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “That speaks volumes for who a designer truly is.”
Although chiefly known for his cutting-edge fashions, it was Cardin’s combination of design with innovative marketing that cemented his place on the world stage.
Cardin’s ideas on style and licensing, if initially frowned upon by his peers, became the industry standard.
In 1959, Cardin controversially introduced ready-to-wear clothing straight from the couture runways, a move that got him ejected from the Chambre Syndicale, French couture’s governing body.
At the time, it was a requirement for French couturiers to create one-of-a-kind pieces exclusively for private clients, a notion that struck Cardin as “redundant”. In response, he crafted his designs to flatter a broader range of women and sold his clothes to the masses.
“I certainly scared the horses,” he told the men’s fashion magazine Fantastic Man in 2009, describing the many high-end clients he lost as a result of the shift. “The reviews, however, were rapturous. I was a true revolutionary.”
Today, nearly all major global fashion houses produce ready-to-wear lines for department stores. The Chambre would later reinstate Cardin’s membership and ask him to be president, but he declined and instead brought his ready-to-wear lines to Asia and the then Soviet Union.
Cardin was one of the first designers to embrace branding, licensing his name to outside companies and conspicuously imprinting a logo on his products. The Cardin logo consisted of his initials or a circular bull’s eye and was often quilted directly into his garments.
Although immensely lucrative, his licensing methods were often viewed as excessive, slipshod and greedy. Fashion insiders criticised him for overexposure and blamed him for turning fashion from an art into an industry.
Cardin was fiercely unapologetic.
“As for the spiteful naysayers who were so eager to see me stumble and fall, needless to say they’re no longer around to tell the tale,” he told Fantastic Man. “So you tell me, who was right and who was wrong?”
Among the naysayers was fashion designer Coco Chanel, who thought Cardin had cheapened design with shameless overexposure.
“What a nice boy, really,” she said after meeting Cardin at a theatre premiere, according to the book Chanel: A Woman of her Own by Axel Madsen. “As for what he does, he will be the end of fashion.”
Simonton said Cardin’s success stemmed from his ability to predict the trends rather than reflect them.
“Sure, now the whole world is licensing and mass-marketing,” he said. “But Cardin was first. You didn’t have to be a model to wear his clothes. He actually understood women’s bodies and the concept of universal fit. So, he made a lot more money.”
Pietro Cardini was born on July 7, 1922, near Venice, and was the youngest of 11 children. His parents were farmers whose property had been devastated by World War I. They left Italy in 1924 and settled in Saint-Etienne, in central France.
As a young man, Cardin wanted to be an actor but because of the war ended up volunteering for the Red Cross in Vichy.
At war’s end, he made his way to Paris and took a job with couturier Jeanne Paquin. There, he helped design costumes for Jean Cocteau’s film Le Belle et la Bette (Beauty and the Beast), an experience that ignited his passion for clothing design and eventually led him to the house of Dior.
It was within Dior’s suit and coat workroom that Cardin perfected his tailoring skills before venturing out on his own in 1950.
Cardin’s first independent business was located on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, a street in Paris’s 8th arrondissement that is home to nearly every major fashion house. There, he launched his first couture collection in 1953 and opened his first boutiques, Eve and Adam.
While the first two decades of Cardin’s career focused on fashion, he soon set his sights on the lifestyle surrounding it.
In 1971, he transformed the former 1930s Paris nightclub Theatre des Ambassadeurs into L’Espace Cardin, a complex that included a restaurant, theatre, concert hall, art gallery and several meeting rooms. It wasn’t long before he bought and expanded Maxim’s.
As his presence in Parisian nightlife grew, he became known as a man about town. He hosted lavish galas and socialised with celebrities. He was romantically linked to men and women, including the actress Jeanne Moreau, but said he mostly liked to think of himself as “a free man”.
One of the most important people in Cardin’s life was designer Andre Oliver, who was his companion for many years and closest professional associate. When Oliver died in 1993 of complications from Aids, Cardin was by his side.
Cardin was estimated to own 31 homes worldwide. His most famous was the Palais Bulles, or “Bubble Palace,” in Cannes, France. Befittingly, the home — conceived in the 1970s and built on a seaside cliff — is futuristic, a circular spaceship, and was inspired by the human body, including intestines and breasts.
At the time of his death, Cardin, small-framed and white-haired, was living in Lacoste, a village of 450 people in south-eastern France. In 2000, he bought the ruins of a castle formerly occupied by the Marquis de Sade, and continued to collect 42 other buildings in the village, as well as start an annual music festival.
As his property collection grew, Cardin drew the ire of many locals. Cardin, having invested more than $30 million in the town, told the New York Times that he had no patience for those who blamed him for destroying the town. In fact, he thought he had saved it.
“I don’t understand this hatred of newcomers,” he said. “The people hadn’t done anything for their village, no sewers, no lights at night, nothing. The village hadn’t changed since the ’30s.”
Despite his reputation in Lacoste, Cardin was recognised elsewhere for his humanitarian work. He was appointed an honorary ambassador for Unesco and was a supporter of Unesco’s Aids research and prevention programmes.
He also campaigned for funds to benefit victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and partnered with Unesco to create a “six flags of peace” programme. The flags, designed by artists, were used in a travelling annual ceremony performed by Cardin along with 30 children.
One of the mogul’s most recent projects was to raise funds for the rebuilding of Pharos, a giant lighthouse in Alexandria, Egypt, and one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World.
“The restaurants, the hotels,” he told the London Guardian in 1999, listing the things that carried his name. “I’ve done curtains, I’ve done tables, I’ve done lamps . . . There are, of course, another six wonders of the world to go.”
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