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to buy everything from sardines to orthopaedic mattresses adorned with the familiar "PC" curlicue – may have become outdated, but they have seen him through economic slumps when other labels have been clawing back their franchises to rebuild their empires within their own walls.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

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