PARIS – Pierre Cardin, an Italian-born designer who was known for his geometric shapes, his pioneering pursuit of licensing deals and his support of the arts, has died in Paris at the age of 98.
Cardin last appeared in public in September at a celebration of the 70th anniversary of his label with an evening of entertainment at the Théâtre du Châtelet that included a screening of “House of Cardin,” the documentary that premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2019.
His spokesman, Jean-Pascal Hesse, said Cardin passed away early on Tuesday of old age.
He founded his own house in 1950 and was a member of the Chambre Syndicale from 1953 to 1993.
Cardin was born on July 2, 1922 in San Biagio de Callalta near Treviso and was apprenticed to a tailor in Vichy, France when he was just 14. During the Second World War, Cardin worked for the Red Cross, and after the war, he did stints at Paquin and Schiaparelli, then became the head of Dior’s tailoring atelier in 1947, where he worked on the iconic Bar jacket, a pivotal piece of Christian Dior’s New Look. He was one of the first seven employees to work at Dior; within three years, the company employed 800. He designed some costumes for Jean Cocteau, and later said that he had been given an opportunity to become the artistic director of Chanel in 1950 but turned it down in order to open his own house.
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In 1951, Cardin created about 30 costumes for Carlos de Bestegui’s celebrated 18th-century Venetian fete-themed costume ball at the Palazzo Labia. He dressed Salvador and Gala Dali, Christian Dior himself, Marie-Louise Bousquet and decorator Victor Grandpierre, concealing them under tall, tricorne-wearing dummies sporting satin masks with jeweled eyes and black lace. The event put him on the map.
During the Sixties, Cardin became known for his Space Age designs, which reflected a long-standing fascination with geometric forms, particularly the bubble; the Bubble Dress was one of his most famous designs. He and Andre Courrèges were in the vanguard of these sorts of looks. His influential designs included little shift dresses in orange, mauve and green with embossed designs, worn with PVC bonnets, gloves and thigh-high boots; color-blocked dresses, sometimes with a target motif; dresses with cutouts and stiff belts, and kimono-style dresses with stylized geometric sleeves. At the time, WWD called him “one of the few original spirits designing great clothes in Paris today.”
He recalled his early days decades later by saying that, as a young tailor, he developed the practice of “dreaming about something, then carrying out the dream. I never wanted to start something I couldn’t finish. If I didn’t think I could finish something, I tried not to think about it at all. It took 30 years to build a name.
“My first year of establishing my own designs was difficult because I was thought of as radical. But I never wanted to get ideas from movies or from some past decade or from the streets.
“I was a young wolf,” he said about an early trip to the U.S. “I was 25. I was this crazy young couturier.”
Very soon, however, he observed that his interest in fashion was waning. In 1966, he said, “After 20 years, do you really still think it interests me to dress a woman?” However, he also said, “Jeans have killed fashion. The street doesn’t create. We couturiers must create if fashion is ever to come back to the street.”
When he talked about his temperament, he made it clear that he was a loner. WWD described it by saying, “He possesses a sort of tunnel vision that places him curiously somewhere between Sartre’s man of action and Ayn Rand’s capitalist superhero.”
“I like being alone,” he told the newspaper. “I don’t like the crowd. It’s useless to show one’s difficulties. I can’t say I have any, but even if I did, I wouldn’t let them show. If I don’t succeed, it’s my fault. The difficulty is never with other people, it’s with oneself.”
In July of 1973, he assessed other designers, saying the admired “only Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, M. Christian Dior and Courrèges. Each had his or her authenticity. Balenciaga was a great creator. Schiaparelli gave women a chic that was characteristic of pure modernity for her time. Courrèges really created a coup in fashion when he first became independent. And M. Dior was always following his own path. As far as I’m concerned, Chanel never influenced fashion one bit…One suit in her entire career is not sufficient.”
It was his licensing empire, however, which was truly extraordinary. Cardin was the first designer to do extensive licensing, and the number of his deals in this area became and continued to be remarkable, a total of 800 to 900 in 120 countries. As WWD put it in April, 2008, these are “what some consider to be a garish number of licensees that even includes food products.”
“I have a name. I have to take advantage of it. No one in the world has so many licenses,” Cardin said in the same article. “Women’s, children’s, men’s, glasses, forks, tables, chairs, lamps, curtains, watches, ties.”
“I don’t have to meet people socially,” he once regally said to WWD. “I eat on my own plates. I drink out of my glasses. I wash with my own soap. I wear my own perfume. I go to bed in my own sheets. I have my own food products. I can sit in my own armchair. I live on me. That is very rare. I am probably the only man in the world who can say that.”
WWD covered his career throughout his long life. He told the newspaper in May of 1967, “As I have long predicted, the haute couture will become a laboratory for ideas…Today I have as clients the 10 most talked-about women in Paris…The Baronne Guy de Rothschild orders 30 models in a season, but what is that?
“The only way to make money is with ready-to-wear. You have no idea how I was criticized by my couture colleagues when I started a department at the Magasins du Printemps.”
During the design heyday of his fashion house in the Sixties, he dressed such top stars as Vanessa Redgrave; Jeanne Moreau wore his clothes exclusively, and she and the designer had a romance. WWD photographed them together frequently. In 1965, Nicole Alphand, wife of Herve Alphand, the former French ambassador to the U.S., went to work for Cardin as a PR woman and brand ambassador. Andre Oliver was Cardin’s top assistant for 40 years. He helped design Cardin’s highly influential men’s collections of the early Sixties, which were based on an Edwardian look. In the early Eighties, Cardin and PR veteran Bobby Zarem backed Oliver in his own business, a men’s store under his own name, which thrived for a time. Cardin had intended Oliver to be his heir; unfortunately, Oliver died in 1993.
In recent years, Cardin had been shopping around his empire, including Maxim’s. Everything sold together, he stipulated, would go for north of $1.3 billion. However, after offers from the likes of the Sultan of Brunei were rejected, those in the know came to the conclusion that he didn’t want to sell his business after all. He continued to insist on handling everything in his company himself, including signing every check.
Cardin also created a dizzying array of other products, including wigs for men, which he launched in 1970, at a time when women’s wigs were a big business. In 1972, he designed cars for American Motors, creating a series of Javelin muscle cars in vivid stripes. He also expanded into restaurants, buying Maxim’s restaurants in 1981 and creating branches in New York, London and Beijing, along with Maxim’s sandwich bars in boats on the Seine. Later, Maxim’s hotels and food products were added to this lineup.
Cardin’s properties included the ruins of the Marquis de Sade’s Chateau Lacoste and 14 other townhouses in Lacoste, France; the Bubble House, in Cannes, designed by architect Antii Lovag; the Ca’Bragadin in Venice, which he liked to say had belonged to Casanova, but which had really belonged to Giovanni Bragadin di San Cassian, Bishop of Verona and Patriarch of Venice. He also had the Espace Cardin, a former theater that he used for his fashion shows and as an arts space; it closed in 2016.
In addition, as WWD wrote in the spring of 2008, he owned “hotels, art galleries, four theaters, [and] a Paris auction house.” As he pointed out, “I have no debt. None.” In 2008, he also opened a furniture shop on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. “My furniture used to be considered provocative,” he said. “But now people like it and say that I’m a very important designer.”
He enjoyed throwing elaborate fashion shows in venues as far-flung as Beijing and the Gobi desert. In 1980, he had a retrospective fashion show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, followed by a black-tie dinner. Describing what would be shown, WWD quoted him as saying, “’There will be short things, long things, sculptural things, flowing things.’”
The paper went on to add, “There will also be hats that look like puffed meringue pastries from 1952; strict little Empire-line chemises from 1954; huge car radiator-like collars from 1956; draped, drooped and deflated-looking blouson jackets from 1958; prophetic black-and-white striped mink coats from 1963; ostrich feather fantasies from 1964; cookie-colored oversized graphics on minidresses from 1965; heavy plaid minicoats with matching gaiters from 1965; Sputnik-like minidresses with hats that look like upside-down refuse receptacles from 1966; circus tent coats from 1967; plastic thigh-high Barbarella boots from 1968; maxicoats over microminis, from 1969; hats that look like inverted flowerpots with TV-shaped holes for the eyes and nose,” and so on.
In 1990, he brought a Russian rock musical, “Junon and Avos: The Hope” by Alexey Rybnikov, to New York and threw a party for it at Maxim’s in the city. He estimated that he had invested $1 million in the production. That year, there was also an exhibition, “Pierre Cardin: Past, Present and Future” at London’s V&A.
One of Cardin’s more unexpected ventures was appearing opposite Moreau in the 1975 film “Joanna Francesca.” In 1992, he was named a Member of the Immortals of the Academy des Beaux Arts, the first couturier to be so honored. In 2010, he received the Fashion Group International Board of Directors’ Legend Award.
At the time he said, “My aim is to boost sales and to raise my profile among young people. Since I don’t get a lot of press coverage, young people don’t know who I am. I want to show them I am still avant-garde and that I produce original designs and that I also want to help my licensees, who depend on my creativity, after all.”
Asked if he thought he should bring in a young designer to “revitalize” his business, he responded, “I have five people who are sketching for me who are very young. And I think that the young designers today are less avant-garde than I am. I’m still in good shape. I still go to work every day.”
Armand Hadida, who owned the L’Eclaireur group of concept stores, featured Cardin’s designs, saying, “There is nothing commercial about my approach. Pierre Cardin has so much to say. He is like a fashion bible — he’s completely impervious to age.”
The designer also had his own museum, which opened to the public in 2006. Recalling his early career, he told WWD, “I was inspired by satellites, by lasers, by the moon. I looked into the future. I was never inspired by a woman’s body. My dresses are like sculptures. I molded them and then I put a woman into it. It was more like architecture or art.
“As I look over all these dresses, I see a continuity of personality. It’s all Cardin. It’s all sculpture. It’s art.” Looking at a Seventies black dress with a metal necklace, he said, “I loved this idea of a dress with metal in it, like a necklace holding up the fabric. But nobody would make it. I found a man who made cars to actually get it done.”
The original museum was on the outskirts of the French capital, and as a result, didn’t attract many visitors, so in 2014, he moved it to a former men’s tie factory in the Marais district of the city, calling it Cardin’s Past-Present-Future Museum.
He recalled at the time, “Before, people thought my taste was crazy. I won’t name names, but some of my peers were very cruel toward me. I can’t tell you what they said and wrote, but they did not understand me. I was different, a nonconformist — like a magazine doing very provocative things, compared with a traditional newspaper.”
Now he said, in one day, “Seven people called out to me in the street, to call out, ‘Bravo, Mr. Cardin!’ with a thumbs-up gesture.”
As for museums in general, he said, “I’ve been to all the museums in the world. Some people go to find something to copy. I went to make sure I wasn’t copying anyone. That’s what I understand when I see my work together here. I’ve always done my own thing.”
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