PIERRE CARDIN: THE SHOWMAN
FROM THE VAULT (SUMMER 2011)
In the mid-1980s, when Pierre Cardin was still acting out his charismatic, intellectual-seer showman role for his company, he took to pausing during an interview to apply his new Bleu Marine cologne. According to Barbara Ligeti, a press officer who worked for him, he would spray himself all over, inhale and then say, dramatically: “Ah! It smells like sex!” This was all the stranger for the shape of the bottle, which, if you bought men’s fragrances in the 1980s you may remember, had a distinctly phallic shape, with a metallic tip. But that wasn’t all.
According to Richard Morais, an American journalist who wrote an unauthorised biography of Cardin in 1991, Cardin had wanted the fragrance to smell like semen. “An olfactory suggestion of sperm,” was, says Morais, his stated desire for Bleu Marine. Odd, but not necessarily surprising to colleagues who remembered his packaging for his Singulier perfume, which unfolded like the petals of a flower, or “like a woman’s sex organ”, as he told his staff.
This story might be from the cruder end of the Cardin treasury, but it is far from the most eccentric. In the 1970s, at the height of his commercial innovations, he sold under his brand name a clam-shaped leather sofa with a canopy decorated with 36 giant tortoise shells. Around the same time, when he was already a millionaire many times over, he was travelling from his Paris home (unspectacular, untidy, no domestic staff, shared solely with his older sister) in a workman’s van because he “liked bumping around in a big vehicle”. And then there have been the hundreds of publicity-generating pronouncements that should make you and him wish Twitter had been invented earlier: “The jean is the destructor! It is a dictator which must be stopped!”; “The chair of the future may look exactly like a rock!”; “Good taste should walk in the streets, on the bodies of anonymous women”. And the semi-famous “fashion should serve the masses”…
Of course, in 2011, some of those aphorisms seem quite plausible; you could imagine finding them chiselled into the exposed-brick boardroom walls of a middle-ranking London streetwear brand. This is partly because Cardin had such an impressive flair for one-liners and presentation and, more importantly, because his eccentricity generated the sort of insights and innovations now referred to as “game changing”. It’s rather a shame that now, with his brand now cheapened by over-licensing and his classic designs caught in that kitsch no-man’s-land between recent and distant pasts, his personality and vintage-era approach to fashion have come to be overlooked. They ought to be a reminder of what the fashion industry stands to lose as the corporate influence strengthens.
Born in Italy in 1922, he grew up in an industrial French town swearing – according to Morais – to take revenge on the kids who teased him for his background. He trained as a tailor, and then worked for the Paquin and Schiaparelli couture houses before moving to Dior to become foreman of the coat and suit studio in 1947. There he worked on the New Look collection of 1947, and learned about designing branded accessories and manipulating the press.
Cardin set up on his own in 1950 and was soon acclaimed as the most interesting young designer in Paris for his ability to create shape with fabrics. Nine years later, at the age 37, he instigated the 20th century’s greatest change to fashion business when he licensed some women’s ready-to-wear designs to a company called Vaskene. Previously, couturiers had done this anonymously, but Cardin put a label with his name on the inside of the clothes, thus turning himself into a mass-market brand. He had, to the displeasure of other designers and the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, invented the designer label.
His men’s ready-to-wear collection, launched in 1961, took a new mood already manifest in the early men’s boutiques in London, and translated it to informally elegant clothes that were an alternative to formal rules of the old establishment. It was a huge hit from the outset, not least because of his marketing: Cardin modelled his own clothes, so that when fashion magazines ran profiles, the writing was accompanied by photographs of him in his slim-fitting trousers and roll-necks, and peppered with his one-liners. “Pierre Cardin nous propose un nouveau dandysme,” declared Jardin des Modes in 1959, and les jeunes hommes eagerly accepted it – and him.
By 1963, The Beatles were not only wearing Cardin suits with collarless jackets, single-breasted, and tapered trousers (whether they were originals or copies is disputed, but he claims them), but also dropping the Cardin name. On YouTube.com you can find footage of a November 1963 interview with The Beatles backstage at a venue in Cheltenham. It begins with the interviewer asking, “How do you invent this way of putting your jackets and so on?”
“We got it from Paris,” says John Lennon, in a collarless jacket with white shirt and black tie. “Pierre Cardin.”
“Pierre Cardin,” says Paul McCartney, making a point of the French pronunciation.
“This idea is yours, or somebody else’s?”
Lennon: “It was Pierre Cardin’s. In Paris. As I said.”
McCartney: “Groups didn’t used to have this sort of jacket. They used to wear ordinary suits. But we adopted this fashion… ”
Lennon: “… a French fashion… ”
John, Paul, George and Ringo: “Pierre Cardin!”
His self-promotion and mass production through licensing made him a sort of fashion equivalent of Andy Warhol. Both Cardin and Warhol were as interested in commerce as they were in aesthetics, and, as the art critic Ekow Eshun points out, “both worked with the auteur principle, ie the notion that their overseeing a project meant their genius was bestowed on it. Their ultimate creative act was to invent a way of inventing in which the signature is all; Philippe Starck, Victoria Beckham and others have him to thank”.
This auteur-ism could be sustained only if it had some intellectual substance, though, and Cardin underwrote his brand with a serious commitment to modernity. As is clear from the shapes and geometric patterns of his famous men’s and women’s collections from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, he designed for an optimistically imagined future. “The job of fashion,” he said, “is not just to make pretty suits or dresses, it is to change the face of the world by cut and line.” That meant expressing the times and using technology to its best advantage; it’s not that radical an idea now, but in 1960 he was among those inventing it. “His prodigious combination of practical problem solving and idea embracing played a major role in the motivation to be radically new, laying the foundations for what was hoped to be a better future,” says Michael Czerwinski, the Design Museum public programme manager and author of Fifty Dresses that Changed the World. Tony Glenville, creative director of the School of Media and Communication at the London College of Fashion, goes further, noting that the “search for modernity in fashion really started with Pierre Cardin, closely followed by André Courrèges and Paco Rabanne”.
If Cardin isn’t greatly feted for this now, he has his overuse of that signature to thank. The most commonly known fact about him is that he has hundreds of licences – over 1,000, it is suggested – and that the quality control isn’t always what it might be. It’s all very well to talk about fashion serving the masses, but the product needs to be a bit better than the £12.99 Pierre Cardin wallets currently available at Argos. He began using licences to extend the brand beyond clothing in 1968, with a range of office accessories, and by the mid-1970s had made his “environments” into a global phenomenon, turning over $50m a year, and attracting praise from serious critics for democratising design. There were homewares, office furniture, cars, bicycles, chocolates… When someone complained that he would be designing a Camembert next, he replied, sincerely, that “nothing would please me more”.
Of course, for various reasons, his influence has waned since then, but it’s worth remembering what he achieved. Cardin wasn’t the only fashion designer to extend his reach like this, but he was the first to do so on such an international scale. The irony is that he helped to create a new, more businesslike world in which it is more difficult for people like him to maintain positions of power.
One fashion historian detects occasional nods to him in Armani, Gaultier and Lagerfeld collections, but sees the great French maverick as being in “a slight limbo”. “New technology with fabric construction, stretch and so on, has moved on so far since the early days of Cardin we now work from a different starting point,” he explains. “The sportswear evolution had also rendered much of his approach to fit and form ‘of its time’. Cardin was a modernist, but he was trained in the old skills of haute couture for all that. A student interested in modernity is more likely to start with technological fabrics and the human form than pattern cutting.”
Perhaps we also need to look to the ambition and showmanship for a legacy; it is probably true that, as Morais implies, he was not always entirely reliable, but he did make life more interesting and unpredictable. The role of fashion, he once said, “is to make another aspect of men evident”, and you’d have to say he achieved that, if nothing else.
by Richard Benson