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Nicola Mira
Dec 29, 2020
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Futurist French couturier Pierre Cardin dies at 98

Translated by
Nicola Mira
Dec 29, 2020

Pierre Cardin, the avant-garde couturier renowned for his futurist style and for being a pioneer of ready-to-wear, died on the morning of 29 December at a hospital in Neuilly, France, at 98 years of age. He left as his legacy a business empire worth 525 million euros, according to French magazine Challenges, and consisting of hundreds of licences worldwide.

Pierre Cardin - Bertrand Guay / AFP

The French couturier was born in San Biagio di Callalta, near Venice, Italy, on 2nd July 1922. He quickly became one of the iconic figures of the 1960s fashion world, alongside Paco Rabanne and André Courrèges, with his space-age-inspired collections. Through his visionary approach, Pierre Cardin was a pioneer of ready-to-wear fashion, and the first to develop his business through licensing, sometimes in sectors rather far-removed from the fashion industry, a choice which often aroused the scorn and criticism of his peers.

Graphically shaped cuts, military epaulettes, skirts hanging from metallic tops, dresses with bubbles and hoops, pinafore dresses with porthole-style cuts, bright colours associated with silvery hues, they were all part of the Cardin style. Clothes that seemed to have landed on Earth from another galaxy, created by a designer intrigued by science fiction and cosmic travel. A world he eventually rubbed shoulders with, when in 1971 he became the first civilian to don a space suit, that of US astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

The early days in the magical world of theatre

Pierre Cardin came to Paris in 1945, and cut his fashion teeth at Jeanne Paquin and Elsa Schiaparelli, before joining the maison of Christian Dior, where he had a hand in the creation of the famous ‘Bar’ two-piece suit. His career took off in 1950, at the age of 28, when he founded his own label.

Pierre Cardin set up shop at 10 rue Richepanse in Paris (later renamed rue du Chevalier-de-Saint-George), and began by creating theatrical costumes and masks, influenced by his meeting in 1946 with French author and director Jean Cocteau, who commissioned him the costume design for his film 'Beauty and the Beast'.

Cardin presented his first collection in 1953 and, from the following year, he was a hit with his bubble dress, the first item showing his penchant for geometric shapes. He then opened his first womenswear boutique, called 'Eve', in rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris, followed by a second one in 1957, 'Adam', dedicated instead to menswear.

The 1960s were pivotal for the career of Pierre Cardin, a man who kept repeating: "I do fashion, it's my drug." He launched his women's ready-to-wear collection in 1959 at the Le Printemps department store, followed a year later by the men's collection, with students treading the catwalk since male models did not exist then. In 1966, Cardin developed a children's range, then introduced synthetic materials and started his licensing business.

Two exhibits from the Brooklyn Museum's retrospective dedicated to Cardin in 2019 - AFP / TIMOTHY A. CLARY

"My great stroke of genius was [the introduction of] ready-to-wear, at a time when there was only haute couture, which always loses money. They told me it wouldn't last two years. I went full steam ahead, confident in my own idea. They criticised me, they imitated me," said Cardin in 2012, speaking at a conference for the students of the Paris Institute of Political Studies.

The king of licensing

Cardin's commitment and marketing vision made him the butt of his colleagues' fiery criticism, and he was expelled from the French fashion industry's union. But Pierre Cardin knew what he wanted: "to become a brand, because a fashion label can disappear in three months, but a brand remains." He started to expand his label via licensing deals: wallpaper, cigars, mineral water, tableware. Virtually anything went. The Pierre Cardin name found its way into more than one hundred countries, on a huge array of objects.

To win international recognition, Cardin staged extraordinary catwalk shows: in the middle of the Gobi Desert; on board an aircraft carrier in Tianjin, China; on Moscow's Red Square with over 200,000 spectators - a first in Russia; inside Rome's prestigious Villa Medici; and at the White Palace royal residence in Belgrade, Serbia. More recently, in 2016, the Institut de France in Paris exceptionally hosted a retrospective of Cardin's 70-year design career, dedicated to the only couturier to become a member of France's Fine Arts Academy, in 1991.

In the 1970s, Pierre Cardin extended the scope of his creativity to other domains. He worked on object design, jewellery creation, fragrances and even ventured into the catering business, becoming the owner of famous Parisian restaurant Maxim’s in 1981.

Spanish influencer Joana Sanz wearing an Evolution 8 model of sunglasses - Pierre Cardin

An eclectic designer, Cardin was also a connoisseur of art. In 1970, he opened a foundation in Paris, bringing together the works of painters, sculptors and set designers, an institution which was eventually taken over by the Municipality of Paris in 2016. He also established a museum called 'Passé-Présent-Futur' (Past, present, future) in Saint-Ouen, France, in 2006. In 2014, the museum moved to Paris, in a 1,000 m2 venue at 5 rue Saint-Merri. It traces the French designer's 'creative passion' through 200 haute couture models and furniture design pieces.

In the early 2000s, Cardin even bought the castle which belonged to the Marquis de Sade, located in Lacoste, France, and some thirty houses in the same town, with a view to turning them into cultural event venues. The purchases were the source of considerable tension with the locals.

An independent name in the midst of the great groups

Pierre Cardin was in charge of a business worth an estimated €525 million in 2020, according to French magazine Challenges. In the last few years, he showed his collections only occasionally, but he kept his fashion label alive, notably thanks to its licensing revenues.

In July 2019, the Brooklyn Museum of New York dedicated to Cardin his first significant retrospective in 30 years. The exhibition, called Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion, allowed for the regilding of an oft-criticised designer.

Cardin understood better than anyone else the value of a brand. Well before others did, he sold licensing rights across a whole range of articles, paying little heed to the criticism he was subjected to. He used to congratulate himself for "having run [his] business successfully, on his own, with no help from financiers, banks or consultants." While other great names in fashion ended up joining forces with the major luxury multinationals.


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