Talent comes out of the closet

A new retrospective of Pierre Cardin's work reveals the designer to be an innovator in furniture as well as clothing. Is this really the same man whose accessories we once laughed at?
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Whatever happened to Pierre Cardin? It is a question many fashion trainspotters might well ask themselves on recalling the great, ultra-experimental couturier now credited with being the first to use male models and with inventing the kipper tie and opaque tights. Along with Paco Rabanne and Courreges, Cardin shot to fame in the mid-Sixties on the back of his exhilaratingly futuristic clothes in metal and plastic. These were a potent expression of the era's space-race euphoria, but, like those of Courreges, Cardin's ultra-stylised, sculptural confections fell out of favour in the Seventies - when retro fashions ruled - and his star plummeted.

Whatever happened to Pierre Cardin? It is a question many fashion trainspotters might well ask themselves on recalling the great, ultra-experimental couturier now credited with being the first to use male models and with inventing the kipper tie and opaque tights. Along with Paco Rabanne and Courreges, Cardin shot to fame in the mid-Sixties on the back of his exhilaratingly futuristic clothes in metal and plastic. These were a potent expression of the era's space-race euphoria, but, like those of Courreges, Cardin's ultra-stylised, sculptural confections fell out of favour in the Seventies - when retro fashions ruled - and his star plummeted.

Once as famous as Saint Laurent or Dior, Cardin had become a retro curio by the Eighties. The last time his work was given an airing was back in 1990, with a retrospective of his clothing at the V&A called Past Present Future. The show made it only too apparent that, as a fashion designer, he'd run out of new ideas by the Seventies.

Now, 10 years on, London's Design Museum is celebrating Cardin's work with an exhibition called Sculptures Utilitaires, curated by the man himself. With Cardin so far out of the spotlight, why is it being held? "Cardin is a great innovator," says Lucy Everett, assistant curator of exhibitions at the Design Museum. "He showed the first ready-to-wear collection in 1959, he was the first to license products - now huge business for the likes of Calvin Klein. And in the Sixties, he designed the Beatles' collarless jackets and a shift dress with conical bra 30 years before Jean-Paul Gaultier's stage costumes for Madonna." Most of these milestones are impressive, but why brag about the licences (he has more than Dior, Saint Laurent and Calvin Klein combined, apparently), surely a dubious distinction - save from a purely capitalist, profit-making perspective - especially given how naff all those Cardin keyrings, and so on, were?

Ironically, although in the past we became all too familiar with Cardin's "PC" monogram, it comes as a surprise to learn that the venerable couturier, now 77, is a furniture designer, too - a revelation we can thank the Design Museum for spotlighting. The exhibition showcases six garments, re-editions of eight pieces of furniture made in the Seventies, archival photos and Cardin's website.

Cardin set up his furniture company, Environment, in 1970. The idea behind it was to create furniture that harmonised with his clothing - an early example of lifestyle shopping, not dissimilar to Barbara Hulanicki's Biba. Unless I'm missing something, however, the furniture and clothing don't correspond aesthetically. Cardin's clothes circa 1970 were quite staggeringly space-age: mini skirts worn over vibrantly striped catsuits in zingy, acid-bright stripes teamed with plastic astronaut-style helmets. His lacquer furniture, by comparison, though very funky, is far less futuristic.

As Everett rightly points out, "It links tradition to modernity. It combines traditional lacquering techniques with simple, modern lines." Cardin's furniture, in eye-popping yellow, tangerine and black, is made of cashew nut lacquer, of all things (that is, the resin from cashew nuts). Applying this is a complex process involving 30 coats. So forget the modernity of mass-production: it takes over two months to make one of Cardin's chests of drawers, desks, wardrobes or drinks cabinets. And while these pieces are lacquered, and so draw from an oriental tradition of furniture-making, they also hark back to art deco and surrealism.

Simple and beautifully streamlined, Cardin's desk, called "Reflection", has a very art deco feel. Meanwhile, his chest of drawers, "Centur", with its curvaceous, anthropomorphic silhouette, distinctly reminiscent of a woman's hourglass figure with its rounded, breast-like drawers, recalls Salvador Dali's 1936 sculpture, Venus de Milo with Drawers (a reproduction of the classical figure, but with drawers literally popping out of its chest). Even the lacquer's luxurious, glossy finish brings to mind old-world decadence.

That said, Cardin's furniture and clothing have some things in common. First, there's their shared acid-bright pop palette. More importantly, they're both very sculptural - a quality Cardin's clothing was always known for. "Cardin's dresses are half sculptures, little shifts suspended from ring collars or cut-out discs and squares," noted Georgina Howell in the Sixties chapter of her book, Vogue - Six Decades of Fashion. Very often, Cardin's clothing paid little attention to the human form - he was more interested in dreaming up dramatically sculptural, artificial shapes than creating clothes whose proportions were dictated by the human body.

Form, not function, was foremost in his mind, too, when he produced his furniture. Indeed, the function of his cocktail cabinet, "Eclipse", in New York taxi-yellow and black, isn't immediately apparent. A rather enigmatic piece, it's fronted by a huge door comprising two semi-circles, one of which slots, jigsaw puzzle-like, into the other. Only slightly more obviously functional is the wardrobe, "Pulsion", in orange and black, whose two deco-style doors curve out dramatically at the top. Even "Centur" and another chest of drawers, "Ocean", are primarily sculptural.

Overall, Cardin, while clearly an innovative fashion designer, was not too excited about finding new design solutions for traditional furniture. As a furniture designer, he loved playing with abstract shapes, making dramatic statements with colour, creating sculptures for the home. It's very apt, then, that the show is called Sculptures Utilitaires.

More than just a furniture and fashion exhibition, it's an informative retrospective of Cardin's career in toto. Did you know, for example, that the highlight of his career was working for Christian Dior in 1946 - a year before Dior took the world by storm with his "New Look"? Or that a very young Cardin designed the costumes for Jean Cocteau's surrealist film, La Belle et la Bête? These two facts alone surely put those statistics about his product licensing in the shade.

Pierre Cardin: Sculptures Utilitaires is showing at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 (020-7403 6933) from 28 September to 12 November

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