We lost designer Pierre Cardin this week at age 98. Today the name Pierre Cardin, if thought of at all, conjures up a licensing machine full of disparate products from key chains to furniture. But during the 1960s and 70s, he was one of the most innovative designers of fashion, jewelry, and even industrial design and helped usher in Space Age Design. Cardin is Forever Fashion.
The Early Years
Fashion designer Pierre Cardin was born on July 2, 1922, to French parents in San Biagio di Callalta, Italy (near Venice). Cardin became interested in fashion early. He eventually went to work for a tailor in Vichy, France. There, he began to hone the skills that would make him one of the most successful designers of the 20th century.
Cardin moved to Paris in 1945, at the end of World War II. During his first five years in France’s capital city, Cardin jumped rapidly from job to job. He found work in the Paquin fashion house, started by famous dress designer Jeanne Paquin, who died before Cardin’s time there. Cardin moved from Paquin to the Schiaperelli fashion house that same year.
Also in 1945, he became acquainted with French film director Jean Cocteau. Cocteau hired Cardin to design dresses for his film La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast), which premiered in 1946, the same year that Cardin began work at Christian Dior’s newly opened fashion house. Cardin is credited with helping to design Dior’s “New Look,” a style of dress intended to emphasize femininity in women’s clothing after the period of women taking on traditionally masculine roles during World War II. Although he was once part of a team that helped design a style that accentuated womanliness, Cardin is now best known for creating clothes that have the exact opposite effect. His cuts are often said to be planar, geometric, and even irreverent of the female form.
Cardin Starts His Own House
Pierre Cardin left Dior to start his own company in 1950. He started out by designing clothing for stage productions but soon built up a client base. Christian Dior sent Cardin roses as congratulations, and, a much more important gesture of encouragement, directed his overflow clients to Cardin’s new business. His biggest hit of the era was the bubble dress.
Cardin’s career was marked by a series of firsts. In the late 50s, Cardin was the first couture designer to show in Japan Soon after he enraged his fellow French designers when he was one to design a ready-to-wear line. This action got him temporarily kicked out of the elite French association of couture designers
The 1960s was his breakout decade. Increasing inspired by the jet and space plus his time in Japan. These futuristic designs captured the hopeful exuberance of the youth movement and ushered in unisex designs. Once again Cardin was first.
In the 70s Cardin continued with his geometric and futuristic designs. He also embarked on a groundbreaking licensing plan that created great wealth while annoying other couture designers who thought slapping their name on items they didn’t design was crass. (My how times have changed) Although these licensing deals were lucrative, eventually the 100s of items cheapened the brand.
Another first was the launch of his furniture designs in 1974. Inspired by art deco and modernist designs, his furniture proved to be very popular and he continued to design pieces until his death. Architectural Digest has a great retrospective here. Including the Palais Bulles, an Amorphic architectural masterpiece in the south of France constructed with architect Antti Lovag between 1975 and 1989.
Pierre Cardin also entered the world of industrial design contracting with American Motors to design a Javelin with a custom interior in 1972.
In the 1980s, Cardin once again led the way with the broad-shouldered look that defined the decade. His massive licensing empire, however seriously diminished his reputation among fashionistas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art presented his first retrospective. He enlarged his business empire by purchasing Maxim’s restaurants and hotels in 1981 and soon opened branches in New York, London, and Beijing. He also licensed a wide range of food products under that name.
The 1990s -2000s
Cardin continued to design and gradually brought his licensing back under control. He many ditched products that had no relevance to fashion or design. As numerous retrospectives were held around the world, a new appreciation of his legacy emerged. In 1991 he was the first designer to stage a fashion show in Moscow’s Red Square including his revolutionary parabolic designs. In 2011 in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Cardin offered to tell his entire company, including an estimated 500-600 licenses, for $1.4 billion.
On December 29, 2020, Pierre Cardin passed away at the age of 98, designing all the way to the end. One of the last great fashion designers of the 20th century, he left his mark on fashion, architecture, and interior design. Cardin was and is Forever Fashion.
Claude Iverné / Elnour, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
1900s & 2000s Parabolic Designs, Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion, Brooklyn Museum, 2019-2020
Cardin is one of our all-time favorite designers and an innovator until the end. Madge was lucky enough to view his retrospective. The photos shown above were taken at the Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion at the Brooklyn Museum in January 2020. Enjoy this slide show of the rest.