Pierre Cardin (1922). French designer. He was born in Sant’Andrea di Barbarana in the Italian province of Treviso. He moved with his family to France in 1926, when he was still in kindergarten. At the age of 14 he began to work in the small workshop of a tailor in Saint Etienne, then he was in Manby during the Nazi occupation. In 1944, after the liberation of Paris, he found a job at Paquin and later, one at Schiaparelli, after working for some time at the Red Cross as an accountant, an experience that would be very useful in the future, as he himself would say. Dior, making his début, hired him as first cutter. Meetings with Cocteau and Bérard push him so much in the direction of the theater that he decided to quit Dior in order to open, together with Marcel Escoffier, a costume atelier. For some years, he hung in the balance between his passion for the literary world and the call of high fashion. Haute couture won out, when, in partnership with André Olivier (his right-hand man in a professional and personal relationship that would end only with André’s death in 1993), he presented his styles. It was July 1957. He would return to the theater later, in 1970, not as a costume designer but as a passionate, courageous owner-manager, opening the Espace Cardin (“Je me suis fait plaisir”) which, in contrast to his other activities, soaked up millions. He never gave up its program of “avant-guard theater, the launch of young talents,” even when critics were not generous. I met Cardin in the Summer of 1957. I was introduced to him by Chino Bert, today a monk but at the time a companion and friend with whom Cardin shared his passion for style and the nightlife. He had just opened an atelier on Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a neighborhood which by now is practically his own property, with nine shops, apartments, and an atelier larger than the Eliseé Palace. I can’t remember if I was struck by his first Collection: those were the years of the myth of Dior, of the very mundane Fath and Balmain, of the still astonishing Balenciaga. But I was struck by the man Cardin: beautiful, gentle, sensitive, available. But the pale and cold eyes, and the willful mouth, would reveal an authority and a will that was feverish, almost impatient, and hardly contained by his slow and sweet voice. It was an attractive and disconcerting contrast. I think that precisely in this physical contrast, which expresses the complexity of his nature, is the secret of his amazing success. Yes, because this apparently romantic gentleman, who started out without economic support, without loans, patrons, or producers, built an empire with an enormous business turnover. Cardin has always been faithful to his motto: “High fashion, a source of ideas.” Since his début (his absolutely against-the-tide “robe bulles” were a triumph) he has always presented endless Collections as a show of fireworks: 200, 300 models, numberless ideas which would have been enough to make four normal Collections, mixing pieces of sophisticated elegance, of such a purity and genial ability with crazy articles that bordered on kitsch, with avant-guard inventions that would be understood only years later. He was the first to bring the miniskirt on the runway — though he is not mentioned with Courrèges and Mary Quant. His astronauts, later imitated by all department stores, took off before man reached the moon. The very tight skirt, sexy and with a vent, dates to 1966: it was a scandal. As were his prefabricated clothes, for which he used a mould as with a pudding, and his aggressive plastic jewels. One ought to give him credit for all this and also for the fact that he never fell into retro or folklorist temptations. And though dressing women such as Begun, Farah Diba, Lauren Bacall, and, of course, Jeanne Moreau, his great love, he never indulged his clients when creating for them, and he never created for the street. “Clothes have to be worn out in the street, but it’s not up to the street to teach the style.” He was always alert to changes in society and customs. “I have been the first socialist of fashion,” he would proclaim. That explains why in 1958 he signed his first contract with La Rinascente and the German department stores, causing a scandal in the world of haute couture, and why he quit the Chambre Syndicale: “With the money earned from these contracts, which was a lot,” he would make clear, “I was able to finance my own activities [this was the real secret of hissuccess: reinvestment], enlarge my ateliers, and take over a shirt factory, which gave me the idea of men’s fashion.” It was the right, necessary moment for a fashion aimed at young people who were becoming the new leading group in society. And he, a provocateur, in order to have everyone talk and write about him (“When you are talked about, you sell”), he, the best public relations man for himself, created improbably flower-patterned ties and printed shirts, at the moment impossible to sell, but worn by real students. Behind these coups de theatre there was a serious, new production that would culminate in the “dévertebrée” jacket, a triumph that would enable him to conquer America. This American success, and his large private clientele, were due in good part to his ex director Mad, Nicole Alphand, the wife of the former French Ambassador to the U.S., and his ex “right arm” André Olivier. They were of two absolutely opposite tempers: Cardin, a loner, and Oliver, the idol of international café society. Still in 1958, Cardin signed his first license in Japan and returned from there with an excellent photographer, Joshi Takara (a precious member of his team who has been with him ever since), and that idol called Iroko who would be the most important and most photographed exotic mannequin in Paris. From that moment on, trying to follow Cardin was like trying to keep up with lightening. To talking about Cardin as simply a fashion personality is impossible: the man Cardin who travels around the world every year; who deals with queens, presidents, and political personalities; the man who by 1960 was already more famous than Brigitte Bardot (“Ah non; il y avait De Gaulle, Brigitte et moi.”); the man who owns a skyscraper in New York, a small village near Cannes, and a tiny palace in Venice (“I go there every year because it’s a charming place and the people are friendly.”). The Chinese government invites him so that he could see on the spot how China could develop a textile industry. And he is the mad one who brought haute couture to Shanghai and Beijing and, as an advertisement for France, opened Chez Maxim’s in Beijing, New York, and Moscow. One day I told him: “You have conquered half the planet as did Napoleon.” He answered: “Much more: he would bring mourning, death and war; I bring beauty and work.” He works incessantly, but not for the money. “It is my hobby. I don’t have cars, yachts, or luxury jets; I have no time for reading, but I know all the world’s museums and love the theater and music. I have no vices.” He lives alone. He has no servant, no staff. He will make his own bed, eat a sandwich, or open a can simply in order not to lose contact with reality. This is the unique case of a man who, working in order to give life to his ideals and not for money, drowns in it like Uncle Scrooge. Accepted among the Immortals of the Academy of France, laden with honors and money (he is one of the most important real estate owners in Paris), he has no rest. In Summer 1997 I met him in Venice. He was 75: “Je voudrais te dire un tas des choses, chérie, mais je n’ai pas le temps.” A plane was waiting for him. He had spent only a few hours there. He moves like lightning. In his work he is a genius able to immerse his fashion within reality, into the present time, into whatever floats on the air or in the wind. In 1980 the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated the exhibition 30 Years of Design to him, and, in 1990, the Victoria and Albert Museum had an exhibit Pierre Cardin: Past, Present, Future. At the age of 80, after 60 years of work, Cardin sold his company.
To celebrate 50 years of work (he opened his maison in 1950 on Rue Richepensée), he organizes a presentation of 100 historic models “as if they were the works of an artist in an art gallery.” The presentation takes place in a new space on Booulevard Saint Antoine, at the Concepì Culturel Pierre Cardin. The designer had avoided “open” presentations for years, in order not to be copied.
He plans the sale of his company. The 80 year-old tailor has changed his mind compared to the way he felt seven months before, and recently announced that he wants to sell his empire. It is certain that he doesn’t want to deal with the luxury groups, so therefore no negotiation is open with Bernard Arnault (LVMH Group) or Franµois Pinault (Pinault Printemps-Redoute Group). There are 900 Pierre Cardin licenses scattered in more than 140 countries, and the company has a value of roughly 1 billion dollars. LVMH is still interested in the acquisition. The year 2001 ends with a loss and a turnover of €48.7 million against €53.9 million in 2000. Counter to this trend there is only Pierre Cardin Italy, where the turnover increased more than 10% and the profit was almost €26 million.
From his villa in Cannes, he attended the Festival and gave the press a categorical denial concerning a possible sale of his company. He will not follow the example of Yves Saint-Laurent and has no intention to sell his licenses.
Pitti Immagine gives him the career award during a great party at Palazzo Corsini, ending with a retrospective presentation dedicated to the historic pieces of the designer.
The decision to sell is taken. In Rome, at the Hotel de Russie, where his Chez Maxim’s is given the award for best restaurant, the 80 year-old designer declares: “I will sell Cardin to a European banking group which will respect my name. I exclude the luxury groups because they have to manage too many brands. I am not one of many.” He excepts only the Marzotto Group, because it is a “pure” company, involved only in the textile-clothing area. Cardin himself, though, leads a very diversified empire which ranges from fashion to restaurants (with 18 restaurants, 8 boutiques, 200,000 employees, 800 products, mineral waters, theaters, and museums). The designer has bought the castle that once belonged to the Marquis De Sade, 64 miles from Avignon, in order to create a museum. On the Cote D’Azur, he has bought the Boule buildings near Cannes.
In the Autumn-Winter Collection, the Cardin man seems to have landed from space. Jackets and coats are without sleeves, which have been eliminated to “allow freedom in the shirts and pullovers.” Somewhat similar to waistcoats, and a little robotic, they are worn with rigorously tight trousers.
Solera, a company of underwear and corsetry, has acquired an exclusive Cardin license for underwear for Europe, the U.S., and Mexico, starting with the Spring-Summer 2003 Collection. The company, with headquarters in Occhiobello (Rovigo), ended 2002 with a turnover of about €10 million. At present, the Cardin line is distributed in more than 200 boutiques in Italy and 50 more abroad.