For a brief period in the early 1980s, the Pierre Cardin brand was one to be sported alongside Fila, Lacoste and Tachinni etc. as us ‘label slaves’ tried to keep up with the ever-shifting sands of being a ‘Casual.’
I knew the name because of the association with The Beatles and photos of them wearing his collarless suits in their early career, but it’s fair to say his place in the general history within the fashion world had not made more of an impression on me at that stage.
Then like a few other labels that came and went quickly, ‘Cardin’ was no longer desirable. I’d be lying to say I knew then what had happened to it, but as the eighties moved toward to the nineties, the Pierre Cardin name kept turning up on all sorts of ‘tat’ – cheap looking wallets, umbrellas, and moody shoes – and all for sale on various stalls down East lane market.
I know now that Pierre Cardin himself licensed the brand name to all sorts and that drove it down market for some of us, as the street cred of the name lessened, whilst at the same time no doubt making vast amounts of money for its owner. I also suspect that a whole range of ‘snide’ goods coming from China etc. with ‘Pierre Cardin’ also stamped on them killed any credibility left on the brand.
Then his name appeared in my news feeds recently, when news of his death at the grand old age of 98 was announced. Timely then, I thought to take a look at his life and times.
Pietro Costante Cardin was born in Treviso, Italy in 1922. His parents, Alessandro and Maria, it is said owned a successful wine business, but the after effects of World War One caused them to lose the lot. Deciding to escape Mussolini and his Italian fascists, the family decamped to France and the industrial area of Saint Etienne.
From an early age young, Pietro was fascinated by making clothes and female fashion in general. To satisfy that calling, he found work as an apprentice tailor locally.
His father was keener for him to study architecture; something that also interested the young Cardin and that is what he did when he first moved to Paris in 1945. However, the desire to ‘do’ fashion was far too strong and he soon began working for the design house of Paquin shortly after World War Two ended.
He worked alongside Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli and ‘made’ for the films of director Jean Cocteau, including ‘La Belle et la Bête.’ Christian Dior noticed his work on those and Cardin became head of women’s tailoring at Dior during the very influential ‘new look’ era.
By 1950, he had started his own fashion house and by 1953, had his own haute couture operation. Early customers there included the first lady of Argentina Eva Peron and actress Rita Hayworth.
Cardin went on to open his first womenswear boutique ‘Eve’ in 1954, from where he sold his own enormously popular ‘bubble dress’ a design narrow at the waist, but which then flared out, before coming in tighter on the legs, thus forming a ‘bubble.’ His cutting edge, sometimes-unisex ideas, brought him great success.
Later he opened a Menswear boutique called, ‘Adam.’ What else?
Always forward thinking; Cardin began to explore the Japanese market from as early as 1957, opening the very first high fashion store there.
This early work was gaining healthy fashion press interest and that in turn captured worked its way into pop culture, especially with the likes of the Beatles who then adopted his collar less/lapel less jackets as part of their early stage wear.
Never one to remain in one box for too long, Cardin began to explore the commercial possibilities his now established name in fashion allowed. To that end he designed uniforms for Pakistan Airlines from 1966 and also began to concentrate more and more on the ready to wear market, with his designs full of bold colours and geometric shapes. As a result, his popularity soared from the dawn of the 1970s
His clothes were often described as ‘space age’ so he seemed destined to design space suits for NASA, which he did in 1970. Whilst there, he tried on the original spacesuit as worn by Neil Armstrong when he landed on the moon in 1969.
From 1975, he began designing furniture and sold that along with his own range of cosmetics. He also designed interiors for the American Motors Corporation.
In his personal life, Cardin identified as gay, though he also had a four-year affair with the actress Jeanne Moreau. Once that broke up, he returned to his long relationship with his partner in life and business, André Oliver. He then began to license the ‘Pierre Cardin’ brand and such was the uptake, Cardin became known as ‘The Licensing King.’
To date, there are more than 900 licenses in over 140 countries, selling everything from frying pans to bottles of water, and said to be employing more than 200,000 people under the Pierre Cardin trademark. When questioned whether he had cheapened his brand, he quickly pointed out that in 2011, the company was worth $1 billion, so he must have been doing something right…
Personal awards came his way later in his life such as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 1991, and Commander of the Legion d’Honneur in 1997.
He was named a United Nations FAO Goodwill Ambassador in 2009.
Pierre Cardin continued to design well into his 90s and died aged 98 on 29th December 2020.
“I wanted my name to become a brand and not just a label.’
I’d call that job done sir.
The Mumper of SE5
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