The fashion god who brought his message to the streets

Pierre Cardin, whose designs changed the face of consumer culture, is selling up. But his brand is immortal, says Harriet Walker

Modern shoppers are used to logo-mania and screaming endorsements: from Hello Kitty make-up to Take That wearing suits from M&S, it has become part of the way brands communicate with their public.

But this was not always the case: labels and designers used to stay behind the gilded doors of their ateliers; the man in the street wore very different clothes to the men in power.

It was Pierre Cardin, 88 – who this week announced he was putting his business up for sale (for €1bn, or £880m) – who opened those doors, inventing the franchise, a fashion directive that has changed the face of consumer culture.

"Everything is Pierre Cardin," the designer told The Independent in a rare interview in 2003. "I can wake in the morning and shave with one of my razors, use my own aftershave and dress in Pierre Cardin from my tie to my pants to my shirt. Then I can go to my Pierre Cardin restaurant [Maxim's de Paris]. Everything in my house is Pierre Cardin too – even what I eat, because I have a range of food products too."

Cardin is hailed as the king of Sixties fashion, so massive an impact did he have on contemporary mindsets. He has designed for Rita Hayworth and Eva Peron and was invited to create a wardrobe for Saddam Hussein, which he refused. "I was important in 600 different countries," he claims. "I have been everywhere except Iraq and North Korea."

Although absent from the role call of labels taking part in the main international fashion weeks, Cardin was the first fashion designer to show his collections in China in the Seventies, thereby capturing the Asian markets early – an audience which most luxury labels now rely on to stay afloat.

His licensing strategies – at one point, it was possible to buy everything from sardines to orthopaedic mattresses adorned with the familiar "PC" curlicue – may have become outdated, but they have seen him through economic slumps when other labels have been clawing back their franchises to rebuild their empires within their own walls.

As part of a clutch of space-age futurist designers, including André Courrèges and Paco Rabanne, Cardin was far less acclaimed – yet his was the name that everyone knew, and which continues to resonate.

Born the son of an Italian wine merchant in 1922 near Venice, he eventually became an apprentice's tailor before moving to a freshly liberated Paris in 1945, to find a city downtrodden but determined to resurrect its credentials as a glittering hub of style and culture.

He went on to train under the arch-surrealist Elsa Schiapparelli and worked for Christian Dior as one of the petites mains behind the legendary New Look collection, which changed the direction of post-war fashions. He is also one of the few couturiers who remembers the great Golden Age of the discipline.

He launched his own label in 1950, and his early designs were characterised by the swooping, sculptural silhouettes of contemporary couture as peddled by the likes of Dior and Balenciaga: sack-back dresses and trapeze lines, cocoon coats and tunic dresses, all made idiosyncratic with exaggerated detailing such as over-sized collars and cuffs, swagged hems and geometric cuts.

Working as a couturier suited Cardin for a few years, but he felt the future was in mass production; when in 1959 he launched his ready-to-wear boutique in Printemps, the Parisian department store on the historic Boulevard Haussman, he was expelled from the prestigious Chambre Syndicale, the governing body of couturiers, for introducing their secret arts to Joe Public. "Why should I work only for rich people?" asked Cardin at the time. "I want to work for the people in the street."

It was this sense of forging ahead socially as well as aesthetically that informed many of his collections too, from 1964's landmark Cosmos collection, whose unisex tunics and hose anticipated the androgynising of fashion that has resulted from the blurring of gender roles since the Sixties. Cardin's futuristic sci-fi look was adopted by the Beatles, who dressed uniformly in his collarless jacket suits.

"There are iconic pieces," wrote Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune last year on the publication of a book celebrating Cardin's sixtieth year in the business. "But perhaps the most striking thing about the designs is that they could all walk right out on the street today and not seem out of place."

It's this strikingly modern mindset that has brought Pierre Cardin so far. Today, he wants to sell his business and franchises, while retaining creative control. His reason is partly his age, but more importantly his desire to see his label outlive himself. "I won't be here in a few years, and the business needs to continue," he told The Washington Post last week. He once said he wanted to die the richest man in the world: he remains fifth richest in France and second only in fashion to Giorgio Armani.

The iconography of his that has been stamped across the globe means he has seeped into French culture as a living legend, a near-caricature. He was awarded the Legion d'Honneur in 1983 and was once photographed wearing Neil Armstrong's moon-landing suit. He edits three magazines as part of a Cardin publishing arm; he has an art gallery; his name has adorned cars and private jets, seven perfumes and two boats.

And his second home, the Palais Bulles outside Cannes, has become a landmark of daring design with its bubble windows and swimming pools on every floor. It lies in the hills about the Baie des Anges, a suitable tentacular lair for a mad scientist, evoking Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tattooine. He has also bought and renovated a castle once owned by the Marquis de Sade.

But the designer spends time at his office too, which is round the corner from his Paris boutique on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It is said that he waves to the former president Jacques Chirac – who lives opposite – through the window as he takes his croissants every morning. Cardin is every inch the French institution: bombastic but endearing, conservative yet ingenious.

The robust octogenarian heads a company with an estimated annual turnover of £1.2bn, and its 840 factories employ 190,000 people worldwide. He has never borrowed or been in debt; he still signs all the cheques himself. No wonder he is looking to sell; it is an exhausting business being fashion's godhead. "I feel very strong," Cardin, who is single and childless, said in 2003. "If I sell my name, I want to die working."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
News
Russell Brand has written a book of political analysis called Revolution
peopleFilm star says he is 'not interested in making money anymore'
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksChristmas comes early for wizard fans
News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
filmsOculus Rift offers breathtakingly realistic simulation of zero gravity
Sport
footballAccording to revelations from Sergio Aguero's new biography
Life and Style
tech

News
people'When I see people who look totally different, it brings me back to that time in my life'
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

    £47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker