Pierre Cardin, the prolific, avant-garde French designer best known for his geometric, space-age couture and his impulse for disruption has died in hospital in Neuilly, his family told the AFP news agency. He was 98 years old.
“I don’t like to stop, I like to continually prove myself,” Cardin said in an interview with CBS back in 2012–and certainly, his work ethic from a young age right up to his death has been testament to that. Renowned throughout his career for having had perpetual irons in the fire, his skills were not limited to fashion. In fact, he built an ignominious empire based on a legion of then unprecedented licenses, the contracts of which he began signing in the 1970s, and which eventually ranged from automobiles to restaurants (he turned Maxim’s, the historic Parisian Belle Époque restaurant, into a global brand), to hotels, jewellery, glasses, fragrances, furniture and even tableware. By 1985, for instance, he had authorised 840 licensing arrangements in 125 countries. Though the practice of lending one’s name to different concepts and product lines is now commonplace, it certainly was not when Cardin began putting his name to all manner of products–and for many, his still serves as a cautionary tale of how a high-fashion label can quickly become devalued.
Born “Pietro” Cardin in Treviso, in the northeast of Italy, in 1922, Cardin’s French parents escaped Italy’s fascist regime, settling in St Etienne, a city in eastern-central France, two years after their son’s birth. In spite of his wine merchant father’s desire that he should pursue architecture, from childhood Cardin knew he was interested in fashion. Indeed he took an apprenticeship as early as 14, before moving to Vichy in 1944, where he subsequently trained as a tailor.
Soon after completing his apprenticeship, Cardin moved to Paris, where he worked with the most famous couture houses of the time, Paquin and Schiaparelli, as well as the decorative artist Christian Bérard, designing costumes and masks for Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. By 1947, Cardin had become the head of Christian Dior’s tailleure atelier during the revolutionary New Look era. It was expected that Cardin would succeed Dior, but in 1950, Cardin left to set up his own company in an attic on 10 rue Richepanse.
Though it was the costumes created for an elaborate masquerade ball hosted by art collector Carlos de Beistegui at Venice’s Palazzo Labia in 1951 that “launched” Cardin’s career—the ball was known as “the party of the century”–it was his futuristic approach for which Cardin will be remembered. Most famous of all is his bubble dress (named because of the way it flared from below the waist and ruched together along the hemline), launched in 1954. His 1960s dresses–square-cut, with large, circular cutouts and geometric sleeves – continue to define space age chic to this day. His landmark Cosmos collection in 1964 anticipated unisex clothing, while his preference for crisp but agile textiles, such as jersey and wool crepe, transformed fashion entirely. (Vinyl and felt were also firm favourites, though he developed his own fabric, “Cardine”, too, which was famously worn by Lauren Bacall in 1968.)
He dressed stars of the day, including Audrey Hepburn, Jeanne Moreau (with whom he had a four-year relationship), The Beatles and Mia Farrow. Speaking of his early days in fashion, the designer quipped in a documentary released this year: “I was quite a good-looking young man, so everyone wanted to sleep with me.”
Beyond his cut, cloth and construction choices, Cardin was in many ways responsible for creating the fashion world of today. He was determined to push the envelope. “The clothes that I prefer are those I invent for a life that doesn’t exist yet – the world of tomorrow,” the designer said, ahead of a retrospective of his work, held at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition in 1990. He launched ready-to-wear as a concept in 1959, an egalitarian move which scandalised the fashion world and ended in his expulsion from the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, couture’s ruling body. In bringing high fashion to the masses, however, he effectively transformed a couture house into the first-ever designer label. He was also one of the first to take his show on the road, by way of destination showcases hosted in locations that western high fashion hadn’t reached out to before: China, India, Vietnam and even Moscow’s Red Square.
The fortune he amassed by way of his fashion line and his licensing deals was readily invested in classic French real estate, including the Marquis de Sade’s castle in Provence, where he held annual cultural events. He also famously purchased the architect Antti Lovag’s Palais Bulles, “the Bubble Palace”, following the death of its original owner. (Cardin had in fact helped to design the Palais, an exemplar of his fascination with eccentric geometrical designs.)
During his lifetime, Cardin received various awards for his contributions to French design and culture, including the Commander Order of Cultural Merit from Monaco Principauté. He was also made a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in January 1991. Indeed, age did nothing to slow the eternal futurist. In 2014, he launched a permanent museum, the Past-Present-Future Museum, in central Paris to showcase his most iconic designs. In 2016, he held a showcase of his work in the south of France, while in October 2017, the then-95-year-old launched a pop-up shop at London’s Maison Assouline.
Cardin once told The Telegraph: “Clothes are important, everyone has to dress. It’s like plants, like trees, you change your cover every season […] To know whether a designer’s left a mark on fashion you need to close your eyes and think what they represent. Chanel left her little suit, Paco Rabanne’s about metal. Courrèges left a mark as did Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet…” And as for Cardin himself? There is little doubt that he has left quite a mark.
This story was originally published on British Vogue.