Pierre Cardin: A Billion-dollar Man in His Own Words

Rosemary Feitelberg
·6 min read

Prolific as Pierre Cardin was as a designer and a licensor, he was direct and at times poetic in sizing up his work and the competition. Cardin, who amassed 900 licenses for his company and created what was said to be a $1.2 billion brand, was unapologetic about his quest for financial success.

Unlike many other designers, whose companies are owned by conglomerates, Cardin could exercise his creative freedom boundlessly. Having collaborated with Cardin for “Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion” at the Brooklyn Museum, senior curator Matthew Yokobosky said the designer didn’t have to toe the line as others do. Cardin also saw to it that all of his licensed products had his name stamped on it.

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Yokobosky said, “Having that solid business in ready-to-wear and licensing allowed him to be more experimental. When you look at the history of fashion, we always tend to talk about the more spectacular piece, the runway piece. Those pieces tend not to be pieces that are worn out in the world. You have to be diverse and be able to design a standard suit that still looks good and fashionable. And then be able to take the risks to make fashions that look good in photography.”

Recalling how he asked Cardin if he had designed his more showstopper clothes as advertising, Yokobosky said, “He said it really wasn’t the impulse. It was his interest in experimentation. Since he had been trained as a tailor in the early Forties, he really knew construction and tailoring. He could experiment with all of these shapes in a way that other designers wouldn’t have been able to accomplish.”

During his 70-year career, the designer, who died Tuesday at the age of 98, discussed his work and ambitions numerous times with WWD. Here, some of his more poignant insights from those interviews:

“The clothes I prefer are the garments I invent for a lifestyle that does not yet exist, the world of tomorrow.”

Recalling being one of the few designers to start work at the house of Christian Dior on its very first day of business in 1946: “The doors were to open at 9 o’clock. I was there at eight.”

On the exactitude he learned at Dior: “We remade those dresses at least 30 times.”

”People are afraid of newness. Much of what I did was scandalous at the time.”

”The world is getting hotter. It’s important to stay cool. In winter, you can wear the jackets with a sweater. It creates texture, super-position. I’m working on integrating real machines into clothes that would keep you warm or cool. The technology isn’t ready. But it will be soon.”

“The jean! The jean is the destructor! It is a dictator. It is destroying creativity. It must be stopped.”

“I’m not influenced by anyone. If you like my clothes, that’s my personality. But you don’t have to like it.”

Buyers’ reactions to Cardin’s blouses and flared dress in July 1959: “The American woman will never accept it.”

”One season in the Fifties I sold 200,000 pieces of a red pleated coat. It seems incredible to think of success like that today. I made a lot of money in the United States.”

After Lady Gaga wore one of his designs in 2010: “Back in the day, I dressed The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I have always designed very provocative clothes for young people.”

”I’ve never copied anyone. Just to look at this [museum] is proof of that. It’s difficult to have personality. Anyone can have taste. But not everyone can have a point of view.”

On securing a visa to visit Russia in 1963: “You know I’m not going because I’m a Communist. I’m a capitalist. I don’t want to have any problems.”

”I wanted to create more than any old brands. I wanted a brand that would last for life.”

On staging a fashion show in the Gobi Desert in Dunhuang in 2007: “I’ve been on a lot of voyages. The light and the emptiness and the color of the sand against the blue sky was like showing fashion on the edge of infinity.”

”Modernity, it has to be astonishing. You can’t look back to the past. My clothes don’t get old. They keep getting younger. A woman of 40, who wears my clothes, looks 20.”

“I was inspired by satellites. By lasers. By the moon. I look into the future. I was never inspired by a woman’s body. My dresses are like sculptures. I molded them and then I put a woman into it. It was more like architecture or art.”

On selling his far-flung holdings: “I’m holding out for more money.”

“I’m an old man but I don’t feel like an old man. I want to do something new. I want to continue. I don’t need clothes. I want to improve myself. I do not want to live for eating. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do, when you’re old: dinner parties and only sleeping?”

”I’m not tired. I can be thankful for that. As long as I feel good, why not continue? I still go to the studio every day, when I’m in Paris. One dress a day is what I create. Even on Sundays. People think I’m crazy, but that’s my life.”

On creating his own company: ”I wanted to be first in my house, not second in someone else’s house. It was a big risk.”

”What’s Chanel? It’s a tweed suit. And Yves Saint Laurent? What’s he known for? The smoking suit? Marlene Dietrich wore smoking suits well before Saint Laurent did them.”

“I’m proud of what I do — to realize a dream, to be independent, to be known by so many people around the world and to have built my freedom myself…but you must respect the people.”

”I wanted to dress the whole world, but through creation, rather than privilege. In other words, by creating, I wanted others to imitate me. That is what I managed to do, even though I was strongly criticized at first, as you know. People said, ‘In three years, nobody will be talking about Pierre Cardin anymore.’ Well, I am the only one that people are still talking about, and that’s been true for a while.”

On receiving the Fashion Group International’s Legend award in 2010: “I have not come full circle. I have to start all over again!”

”There’s a lassitude in fashion today. There are too many collections and designers. Look at them, they’re mixed up. They don’t know what’s modern. They do a collection of Marie Antoinette and mix it with all of these other references. But you never know, maybe I would do the same thing if I was starting today. Perhaps I’m just lucky. I lived in extraordinary times.”

Regarding his designer heir: “After me, you know, things still will be different. But that’s life — to each their turn.”

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