Pierre Cardin: Designer who built a platform for 21st century fashion

He grew his empire with a pioneering principle – that a name associated with clothing could be applied to virtually any type of consumer product

At his Paris office in 2012
At his Paris office in 2012

The stereotypical fashion designer achieves notoriety via a headline-grabbing garment, a landmark collection, an illustrious client list or a risqué advertising campaign. Pierre Cardin became infamous for unashamedly exploiting his name. With a biography appropriately entitled The Man Who Became A Label, when the Pierre Cardin company celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2010 there were more than 1,000 products – the minority fashion-related – with Cardin keeping a close eye on his empire. “I travel more or less like a pilot,” he said. “I go around the world at least two times a year.”

From the outset, Cardin was a futurist in the truest sense of the word. Not only did he advocate a space-age dress code pre-empting man landing on the moon, he created a sartorial business model which has become the template for the 21st century fashion industry. Cardin, who has died aged 98, built his empire on a pioneering principle – that a designer name associated with clothing could be applied to virtually any type of consumer product. In Cardin’s case this meant everything from a hairdryer to a frying pan, caviar to alarm clocks. “Everything is Pierre Cardin,” he told The Independent in 2003. “I can wake up 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 in Paris]. Everything in my house is Pierre Cardin too – even what I eat, because I have a range of food products too.”

His revolutionary attitude to licensing deals was equalled by his enthusiasm for entering new markets, namely China, Russia and Vietnam decades ahead of his competitors. “I cover the entire world, except perhaps North Korea,” he stated in 2010. “I could go there too if I choose.”

Cardin, son of a wine merchant, and the last of 11 children, was born Pietro Cardin in the province of Treviso, near Venice in 1922. His parents lost everything in the First World War, leaving Italy for a new start in the south of France. As a young émigré, Pietro decided to help the military effort, joining the Red Cross as a trainee accountant, followed by an apprenticeship as a tailor in Vichy and Saint Etienne.

He moved to Paris in 1945. On the recommendation of a friend he joined the atelier of couturier Jeanne Paquin, then Elsa Schiaparelli. He met Jean Cocteau and Christian Berard, and designed costumes for La Belle et la Bete. Having tried three times, but failing, to secure a position with his hero, Cristobal Balenciaga, a year later he joined Christian Dior, working on the seminal “New Look” of 1947. By 28 years old, in 1950, he had set up his own label, presenting his first haute couture collection in 1953 and unveiling his first pret-a-porter show – the first couturier to do so – and in 1960 his first men’s couture collection.

Although his initial training had centred on tradition, by the mid Sixties, he was being hailed as an innovator, inventor and sartorial soothsayer with his extraordinary vision of the future. “I was on the moon in this period,” he told The Independent in 2003. “People didn’t like what I did on the moon. My dream was one day to go on the moon.”

Cardin’s other worldly vision of the wearable wardrobe – criticised in some quarters as “ugly, vulgar” – nevertheless captured the imagination of the press and paved the way for the meteoric rise of his name. Cardin became immune to criticism and carried on. “I don’t care what other people think,” he said. “I do what interests me.”

As fascinated by accountancy as he was with aesthetics, by the Seventies, diversification – not fashion design – became Cardin’s preoccupation. Having signed his first licencing contract for men’s shirts and ties in 1959, a decade later he turned his hand to transportation, restyling Cadillacs, private jets, and boats. He launched fragrances, and most importantly began to compile an impressive property portfolio. In 1970 Cardin opened the L’Espace Pierre Cardin – formerly the Theatre des Ambassades situated off the Champs-Elysees – a theatre with accompanying art gallery and restaurant where Ella Fitzgerald sang jazz, Gerard Depardieu made his debut and Marlene Dietrich staged one of her final performances. At the opening of the gallery “Evolution” on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris, in 1977 he presented his first collection of high fashion and furniture. A year later he launched the Pierre Cardin furniture range in the UK.  

Always with his eye on new and emerging markets, in 1981, Pierre Cardin became the first European designer to open a showroom in China. He launched in the Soviet Union, later saying, “I didn’t invent glasnost or perestroika, but I’m glad to have been a bit player in these great events.”  

Adjusting a jacket for a Paris collection in 1979

Running parallel to his retail interests, he took control of the famous Maxim’s restaurant on the Rue Royale, Paris. Not content with owning it, he embarked on a plan of international expansion, opening versions of the original in Brussels, London, Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, New York, Palm Springs and, with the permission of the Chinese government, Beijing. Ever the entrepreneur, he capitalised on the elegant Maxim’s ambience, creating and launching a range of Maxim’s perfumes for men and women.  

In later life, he hit the headlines not for his saleable ideas, but for his architectural interventions. Already intent on turning the medieval French village of Lacoste into a “cultural Saint-Tropez”, complete with Greek amphitheatre, Cardin turned his attention to Italy. Facing stiff opposition and protracted legal wranglings, Cardin shelved his vision of a proposed 60-storey skyscraper called “Palais Lumiere”, which would have been clearly visible on the Venice skyline.

Called a “Mogul to the Masses” by Newsweek, throughout his career this formidable entrepreneur, opportunist and marketeer had played many roles: architect, landowner, restaurateur, retailer, theatre producer, perfumer, furniture, product and fashion designer but above all, consummate salesman. “There is always something else to design. A great deal depends on where life takes you,” declared Cardin. “I have chocolate, soup and nuts, and I’m proud. Even sardines I find honourable.”

Pierre Cardin, designer, born 2 July 1922, died 29 December 2020

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