The new retrospective of Pierre Cardin’s work at the Brooklyn Museum presents the opportunity to reevaluate this designer’s career. The timing couldn’t be better because the future has finally, almost, caught up with Cardin. “No poacher on the past,” is how Vogue described this often prophetic and sometimes disruptive designer, who has been long been engaged with the democratization of fashion and the industry through ready-to-wear and licensing, respectively. Cardin embraced the Space Age, and led a “revolution” in menswear, the highpoint of which was designing suits for the Beatles.
The desiger, who turned 97 this month and still reports to the office every day, is one of the last men standing from the Golden Age of couture, having helped give birth to Christian Dior’s New Look, and his technical ability is indisputable. “Because of his vast knowledge of construction, tailoring, and sculptural-architectural proportions, Cardin is the only Paris couturier, outside of Balenciaga, who is not only a designer, but an excellent fitter and cutter,” noted a fashion journalist in 1958. So why don’t we talk about Cardin the way we do someone like Hubert de Givenchy or André Courrèges?
It’s true that the variety and depth of Cardin’s career make it difficult to navigate, but these days most press about the designer is for his business acumen. Depending on your point of view, in this area Cardin is either a visionary or a cautionary case study in brand dilution through licensing. As Dana Thomas notes in Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Cardin “revolutionized fashion by licensing the mass production of women’s designer ready-to-wear.” In 1959, this wasn’t standard operating procedure as it is today, and this move got him temporarily expelled from the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
At least part of Cardin’s motivation was to democratize fashion, but as the designer’s licensing and sub-licensing deals grew, his name seemed to exist independent of any one product. Curator Matthew Yokobosky wants to realign the name with fashion: “I would like people to come away from this rethinking Pierre Cardin as a great fashion designer and furniture designer—not a designer just of handkerchiefs,” he tells Vogue.
There is a distinct Cardin look. It’s based on geometry; it’s sculptural and sometimes kinetic. It also tends to the clean and minimal, and it’s been applied to dresses and furniture, even real estate. Though Cardin didn’t design the famous Palais Bulles (Bubble Palace), he bought it in 1991 and oversaw its completion. This some 37 years after introducing his first hit, the bubble skirt. Some of Cardin’s work is indisputably far-out, but much of it stands the test of time, as do some of the concepts behind it. At Cardin, noted to Vogue in 1964, “every dress is an adventure in ideas.”
Before heading to Brooklyn, here are five things you might not know about a man who has always had stars in his eyes and his eyes on the stars.
A bit of background: After apprenticing himself to a tailor at 17, Cardin worked at the houses of Paquin (then led by Antonio Castillo), wherein he helped create costumes with Jean Cocteau and Christian Bérard for the surreal film Beauty and the Beast. He spent some time chez Schiaparelli, too, before signing on with Christian Dior, where he helped create the “New Look” collection of 1947 and impressed Mr. Dior, who would later say, “Designers like Pierre Cardin are the future of haute couture.”
After Cardin set up in business for himself, making costumes, Dior tapped his protege to create his get-up for Carlos de Beistegui’s Venice-themed “party of the century.” Dior attended as a magnificently maned lion. So well regarded was Cardin that he was considered a top contender to lead Dior after the founder’s death. How different the history of fashion would be if Cardin, rather than Yves Saint Laurent, had assumed that mantle! (Fun fact, before Betty Catroux became Saint Laurent’s muse, she was a “vendeuse extraordinaire” in Cardin’s left-bank boutique.)
A lot of energy and interest in fashion today is being generated by a host of designers who understand, like Cardin did decades before them, that “most men have a subconscious, but inhibited longing for fantasy.” He decided to meet it. While Cardin’s Space Age looks (more on those later) are his best known, Vogue credited the designer with starting a revolution in menswear when it reported on the 1966 opening of a Cardin boutique at Bonwit Teller, New York. All of his clothes, the magazine noted, are “in the style that Cardin describes as ‘sexy...plus elegant que kicky...very young...the shape picks a man up and gives him height and youth….”
Cardin opened his first men’s shop in 1957; a companion to his Eve boutique, it was called Adam. Though the designer sometimes modeled his own clothes, when it came time to present his first men’s collection in 1960, he did so with a cast entirely made up of students from the University of Paris. The fiercely independent Cardin favored freedom for women and men—“youth is supple; age is stiff. I like a line that moves with the body,” he stated in 1958. His more relaxed haberdashery really struck a chord: In 1966 Reuter’s reported that the designer’s turnover for menswear was $26 million, six times the amount of his women’s business.
Cardin has always had a love affair with Asia. In 1979 he presented a fashion show to professionals in Beijing; even earlier, in 1961, he became an emeritus professor at Bunka Fashion College. On one visit he met the model Hiroko Matsumoto, who, he would later say, “incarnates purity as I have never seen it in anyone.” Cardin invited her to come to Paris; eventually she acquiesced and became the designer’s muse, and, it’s said, the first Japanese model to work for the couture, which was not noted for the diversity of its cabinets. Matsumoto’s arrival was of great interest to the press, and one contemporary report noted that the model “is currently enjoying in Paris the kind of success overnight that was once reserved for actresses.”
Speaking of actresses, Cardin had wooed Jeanne Moreau away from Chanel. The star reportedly walked out of the rue Cambon and over to Cardin, saying, “I’ve got to get out of this uniform.”
Curator Yokobosky says that one of the surprising discoveries he made while assembling the Brooklyn Museum show were Cardin’s “robes électroniques,” circa 1967. These were decorated by light-up LED embroideries. The catwalk they were presented on, he explains, was darkened before they were shown to heighten their effect.
More substantial, because it extends beyond the decorative, was the designer’s invention of Cardine, “the exciting, new fabric everybody’s talking about,” as Vogue reported in October 1968. An early tech material, it could be heat-treated to hold embossed designs. Cardin used it to make an “egg carton” dress in 1968 and incorporated it into his landmark Cosmocorps collection.
Cardin is the only civilian ever to put on a NASA space suit (in a neat tie-in, the Brooklyn Museum show opens on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing). Cecil Beaton wrote that Cardin was “a member of the Martian school: his young models are equipped for any science-fiction activity. Their heads protected by crash helmets, fireman’s masks, or culinary weapons, they are silhouetted like pears, torpedoes, or rocket missiles, in light hairy materials. They are in the advance guard of those exploring outer space.”
In Paris, there wasn’t a youth and music scene akin to London’s. Space Age designs, explained curator Pamela Golbin in a 2002 article that ran in the Chicago Tribune, “became a metaphor for youth and the future in France. It was an optimistic message about how you can transform yourself into a modern person by wearing mini-skirts, trousers with stretch, and other clothes that let you move.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue