Photos by Matthew Frost
Pierre Cardin is one of those names everyone knows, even if you have no idea who he is or what he looks like. For the clueless, he is the man behind and the designer of one of the most famous logos in fashion—the entwined pc splashed across more than 800 products: neckties, collapsible bicycles, car upholstery, chocolate, cigarettes, ice buckets, frying pans… You get the idea.
Cardin, now 89, began his career as a menswear tailor in Vichy France, and went on to become one of the first designers of ready-to-wear before going on to create some of the wildest space-age looks of the 60s. In the decades that followed, he became one of the most famous and commercially successful designers in the world, striking million-dollar licensing deals in places as far-flung as Russia, Japan, China, and India for perfume, cosmetics, clothes, and anything else his ubiquitous logo would fit on.
Throughout his seemingly endless heyday, he’s remained a controversy-fomenting enfant terrible, defiantly refusing to define his sexuality in public in the wake of rumored affairs with his beautiful female model Jeanne Moreau and his beautiful male assistant Andre Oliver.
These days he’s still doing stuff that bothers people, like any decent fashion designer should, except now he’s moved on to the weird world of real estate. Over the past decade, he’s been restoring the Marquis de Sade’s infamous castle in the sleepy southern French village of Lacoste and buying up all the property around it (angering some locals in the process). He’s also planning to build a massive Dubai-style luxury residential complex in Venice, designed by him, of course.
For all his wealth, Cardin’s seat of power lies within a scruffy office in Paris’s eighth arrondissement, which I visited on one bright morning in January. The floor was littered with paper clips, crumpled documents, and cardboard boxes bulging with ephemera, and the walls were adorned with framed photo-collages and mementos: Cardin with Fidel Castro, Pope John Paul II, and pretty much every historical figure of the 20th century. “I knew them all,” he said, never one for modesty. “I am the one who has been in fashion the longest, for 70 years. I am the one who is still talked about.”
Cardin is surprisingly rumpled in person. When I met him he was wearing a blue blazer, collared shirt and tie, gray trousers, and a shock of white hair. The shoes—anonymous black slip-ons designed for maximum comfort—betrayed his age. As we spoke, he fluidly and fluently transitioned between English and French, wandered around the room picking up old photos from shoeboxes, and brought out copies of his European-royalty-obsessed magazine Princes. Cardin may be old enough to have achieved living-legend status, but he’s still as sharp as a bespoke tack.
VICE: You’ve recently been in the news for your transformation of Lacoste. It seems you’ve got the locals all riled up, as if the Marquis were back to disturb their rural idyll.
Pierre Cardin: The chateau had been left to become a complete ruin before I arrived; now it is beautiful. There are a few people there who are jealous because I have done so much for the place. Lacoste has galleries and the annual festival because of me. There’s a lot of activity. Maybe some of the locals are upset because they are quite old.
Do you think they were surprised that someone of a similar age—or perhaps even older—was responsible for bringing the noise?
Well, they didn’t mention that. I arrived like a tomahawk thrown into the scene and shook it all up, so they became agitated. Now most of them are beginning to understand my good intentions.
You enjoy shocking people, don’t you? Whether it’s taking on the locals of Lacoste or buying the respected, traditional Parisian restaurant Maxim’s and turning its name into a brand, controversy always seems to follow you.
I’m not scared to provoke. You need to surprise. If an idea is good, people should be bothered by it. That’s happened with my clothes. When a design is pretty or decorative, it is passive and becomes a matter of taste: Do I like it or not? I abhor the phrase “he has good taste.” It’s meaningless. Who cares?
Obviously, you don’t. Some in the perfume world were pretty upset a few years back when you put the pc brand on a range of tinned sardines.
I lived through the war! We were hungry! It’s ridiculous that someone who makes perfume cannot have a sardine business. You can’t live on perfume. If I want to have Pierre Cardin sardines, then I will.
Around the time you were born in Venice, the Italian Futurists were saying things like, “We want no part of the past!” You seem to have internalized that sentiment at an early age.
For sure. I’ve always been interested in the future; it formed part of my conception of fashion. Remember, when I started, it was the time of the avant-garde.
But when you arrived in Paris in 1944 you were just a tailor from Vichy; soon afterward you were working for the House of Paquin and on the costumes for Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et le Bête [Beauty and the Beast]. How did that happen?
I wanted to go on stage, but on the first day I came to Paris, a Saturday, I met the man who presented me to Paquin. And on that Monday I met Christian Dior, and through Paquin I met Cocteau. I didn’t have any money to pay for dancing or drama school fees, so fashion it was. It was very important when I was starting out to meet such people. And I met them all: Picasso, Visconti, Balenciaga…