Pierre Cardin is one of those names everyone knows, even if you have no idea who he is or what he looks like.
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…
You were an arriviste in your 20s, but the crowd you were hanging out with were in their 40s and 50s. How did you become one of their peers so quickly?
I worked hard, and they were very generous. Balenciaga was an inspiration when he returned to Paris after the war and started to design for the new civilian life, but Christian Dior was the most important person to me. He was working on the New Look, a true revolution in fashion, and he welcomed me into his house. If he had not, I would not be Pierre Cardin today.
I’m not sure I can detect Dior’s work in yours, though. Where is his influence?
You want the truth? I have never been influenced by anybody. I have my own style and would much rather be copied than copy.
Your first big statement, the “Bubble Dress” of 1954, was viewed as too radical because it distorted the shape of the female silhouette with its bulbous outline.
At the time I was more interested in sculpture than fashion. That came out in my work. The Bubble Dress was my depiction of the circle. I am obsessed with the round: It represents the moon, the breast, life. And I return to it again and again because it is infinite; I relate it to the cosmos. The infinity of space is more inspirational than any person.
I guess that came out loud and clear in your Cosmocorps collection of the 60s, which was based on Russian cosmonauts and tried to predict how we would dress in the future. Why aren’t we all wearing Star Trek synthetic jerkins with asymmetrical zips and heavy pendants in 2012?
Cosmocorps was my way of thinking about how fashion should be, not necessarily how it would be. To this day, I am always looking to the future. My work is a continuum of my own ideas about fashion—nobody else’s. I try to remain true to myself. I try to be Pierre Cardin.
You are known as the pioneer of fashion licensing and the creator of the designer label, which started with the way you marketed perfume and then branched out into every product imaginable. Any regrets?
None whatsoever. The licensing came out of my first menswear show, which was held at Galeries Lafayette in 1960 and based on my “cylinder” line. At that time, you went to Italy for style and England for The Look; there was no prêt-à-porter for men in France. I used 200 college students as models, which caused a scandal. I invited buyers from around the world who all ordered the clothes. That was it. Licensing had begun—after me, everybody else. Now licensing has reversed the roles in fashion. The power no longer resides with haute couture. It now comes from the girl on the street and what she wears. It’s to her that women look these days. This fits with my original desire, which was to democratize fashion. I didn’t see why only the rich should dress well. It was a socialist ideal.
Success in commerce is evidently very important to you. I’ve heard your business has profits of $1 billion a year from sales in 140 countries. What do you think of Andy Warhol’s pronouncement that “being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art”?
I knew Andy Warhol well; in fact, I had two Warhols in my modern art collection at one time. All I can say is Warhol was always fascinated by business!
You’ve also conceptualized a fantastical tower for hundreds of people to live in near Venice. It looks like something out of Dubai or a surreal dream. Is it really going to be built?
I call it an inhabitable sculpture, and it is far superior to anything you would see in Dubai. I have also designed a whole bunch of houses on the ground around it, in the shape of mushrooms for the people who do not want to live up in the air.
Mushrooms? Like your Bubble Palace [Cardin’s Star Wars-style Palais Boules on the Riviera, which is built on a foundation of semi-submerged brown concrete domes]?
Yes, why not? It’s an organic shape, perfect for living in. Here I am, again, going back to the Bubble Dress, back to the circle. I told you: It is the basis for all my designs.
You first visited Japan in the 50s and became the first Western designer to feature a Japanese model, Hiroko Matsumoto, in your runway show. Do you reckon you had influence over designers from Japan in the 70s and 80s?
Of course. When I first arrived, Japan was starting from zero after Hiroshima and WWII. There was no fashion, just the kimono, so I was the only designer, the only reference point for those people who wanted to express themselves in fashion. It was the same in China [Cardin first visited the country in 1978]. They were wearing Mao uniforms or traditional dress. I took my inspiration for the shape of the shoulders on my suits from the pagoda, whereas others just copied the details of the Mao jacket: the collar, the pockets, and so forth.
With so many interests and such a busy schedule, is it hard to find some sort of stability in a daily routine? Or is that something that doesn’t interest you?
First thing in the morning I have a meeting here with my bank—and that’s my own bank, the one I own, you understand. I take care of all the company’s finances. I learned how to do this when I was an accountant for the Red Cross during WWII. Then I have meetings with every department, and all the time I sketch designs for clothes, for ideas. For example, I designed a range of radiators that way. I think standard office radiators are ugly [he points to a standard radiator next to his desk in his office]. The ones I had made, in 50 different versions, are very futuristic in red or blue and much more exciting for the home.
What do you think of fashion designers today?
Wearing the corset over the dress isn’t fashion, it’s costume, and there is too much of that—too much attention to “style,” too many references to films, to the past. My conception of fashion is to produce something new. Maybe sometimes people don’t like the designs, but the important thing is to ignore trends.
That’s easy for you; unlike everyone else in fashion, you still own the company. There are no outside financiers, no investors pressuring you.
That’s true. And remember this: My house is still commercially very viable. So my conclusion is that this is a result of my talent.
In the 50s, when Yves Saint Laurent ascended at the House of Dior, it was said: “In three years you won’t hear anything about Cardin.”
But as you can see, I’m still here.
Paul Gorman is a writer and cultural commentator. His next book, Mr Freedom: Tommy Roberts—British Design Hero, will be published by Adelita in April. More information about Paul can be found at paulgormanis.com.