Citizen Cardin's last great sale: himself

He put his name on clothes, sardines and key-rings and became very rich. Now he's had enough. John Lichfield on the fashion magnates' magnate
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The Independent Online
After half a century of attaching his name to everything from trousers to fountain pens to sardine cans, Pierre Cardin wants to sell out. Ah, say the wags, there is nothing new in that, Cardin sold out years ago. He was - is - a genuinely inventive designer, but cheapened his name by turning it into a label which could be stuck on to almost anything.

No. This time Cardin, the 74-year-old master salesman who celebrated the 50th anniversary of his world-wide empire last week, wants to sell up. "I don't want to die and leave my business to some third cousin," the unmarried couturier told Le Figaro. "I have decided to sell."

The revelation sent a frisson of speculation through the cut-throat world of high fashion; through the lucrative, spin-off world of franchised, ready-to-wear designer clothes, which Cardin pioneered; and the spin-off, spin-off world of designer-labels-on-everything which Cardin invented.

The son of impoverished Italian emigrants (like Johnny Hallyday and Georges Simenon, this archetypical Frenchman is not French), Cardin has become the ninth wealthiest man in France. His empire, which stretches to 900 franchises in 120 countries, including 20 shops and several factories in China and the high-snob Maxim's restaurants on three continents, is legendarily chaotic. It is run, nominally, from a small office opposite the Elysee Palace in the Rue Faubourg St Honore, where no one ever answers the telephone. It has the same legal and corporate status in France as a corner bakery, with a declared capital of 50,000FFr (pounds 5,500). But it has an estimated annual turnover of more than pounds 1bn and employs, directly or indirectly, 190,000 people.

As Cardin boasted, he is the only top designer in the world who owns his own business outright. Not only that, he approves every contract and signs every cheque (which, it is said, takes up most weekends in his modest apartment over the office, where he lived for many years with his aged sister, Janine).

He still finds time to design clothes for high-profile clients like Bernadette Chirac, wife of the President, and Pamela Harriman, the US ambassador to France and former wife of Randolph Churchill. It is unclear, however, just how much control he exercises over the more obscure and down-market articles which appear under his, or the Maxim's, name - kettles, skis, dolls, umbrellas, key rings, slippers, alarm-clocks, cigars, tinned peas, and yes, at one time, sardines.

Cardin insists that he approves every design; some disgruntled former associates have suggested otherwise. It is this almost bottomless willingness to take the designer concept into new and absurd territory which has made him, as he says, an "outlaw" among his competitors.

Now, he says, he wants to carry on as the creative spirit and titular head of the business but devote more of his legendary, but undisciplined, energy to generating "peace and tolerance in the world".

"I can understand why. He is getting older and the burden of the business side must be weighing on him more now," said Jacques Mouclier, president of the Chambre Syndicale, the trade organisation of French couturiers. "But I can't really see it working.

"It's very hard for a man to be the supreme boss one day and an employee the next. And much more than in many other businesses, the Pierre Cardin empire is Pierre Cardin."

It may also be that Cardin, the man who was once at the cutting edge of not just fashion, but the business exploitation of fashion, no longer feels in tune with the mood of the times. In interviews to mark the 50th anniversary of his business last week, he was viciously critical of the designs appearing at the most recent spring collections. They were, he said, copies of old ideas ("I could do that with my eyes closed, but I don't call it creativity").

Earlier, he had excoriated the tendency for high fashion to ape street fashion. "When I began in the business, servants wanted to look like their mistress. Now it's the other way around. An elegant woman in the Faubourg St Honore has become a rare bird indeed."

These may seem strangely anti-democratic ideas for a man who has done more than anyone to put designer products on the backs, and in the fridges, of the less wealthy. An associate once revealed that the real financial backbone of the Cardin empire is men's off-the-peg suits and shirts. "Our principal clientele," he said, "is provincial snobs."

But this is just the point. Cardin's stroke of genius when he invented the concept of franchising pret-a-porter designer clothes from the 1960s was to license snobbery. Every woman - and man - could be associated with haute couture. The whole brilliant concept comes tumbling down, however, if haute couture starts to take its ideas from every man and woman.