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to buy everything from sardines to orthopaedic mattresses adorned with the familiar "PC" curlicue – may have become outdated, but they have seen him through economic slumps when other labels have been clawing back their franchises to rebuild their empires within their own walls.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
Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
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
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
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

    Maths Teacher

    £110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

    Maths Teacher

    £90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

    Maths Teacher

    £110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

    Maths Teacher

    £22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week