He’s the fashion powerhouse who started out as Christian Dior’s protégé, heading up his atelier in the Forties before founding his own eponymous house in 1950 and today, at the age of 98, remains one of the best-loved figures in the fashion industry.
Now, on the 70th anniversary of founding his label, the creative genius that is Pierre Cardin has become the subject of a captivating new fashion documentary, which charts the legendary designer’s historic career and received universal praise when it was shown at the Venice Film Festival last year.
House of Cardin, directed by American duo P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, follows the designer from his childhood in France (though he was actually born Pietro Cardin just outside Venice in 1922, before moving across the border when he was two) and explores how we went on to become one of the country’s most celebrated names in fashion. Through rarely seen archival footage and talking-head interviews with the likes of Naomi Campbell, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Philippe Starck (Cardin acted as a mentor for the latter two), this fashion documentary explores an exceptional career that paved the way for bold new ideas about how women should dress, freeing them from the figure-hugging clothes and restrictive corsets that had come before.
It is his much-lauded designs from the 1960s and 1970s that Pierre Cardin is best known for, and the striking archival pieces that appear on screen still look refreshingly modern to this day. And it’s not just the designs that were ahead of their time; his exquisite Sixties couture creations were modelled by his Japanese muse, Hiroko Matsumoto, and Cardin was one of the first designers to feature women of colour on his catwalks long before anyone else did, something that Campbell is quick to point out in the film.
Pierre Cardin’s work was ground-breaking in other ways, too. The fashion documentary goes on reveal that he was the very first designer to branch out from haute couture into ready-to-wear and in 1959 was actually expelled from the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (the industry’s governing body in France) when he decided to make designer dresses on a budget for the mass market. As Cardin himself said, “I think that fashion should follow a mode of thinking that is subversive.”
The fashion documentary highlights the designer’s success as a savvy businessman as well as his artistic genius. Alongside his ready-to-wear pieces, Pierre Cardin also pioneered the licensing model that generates income for luxury brands from more accessible items, including sunglasses, perfume and ties, something that remains of vital importance for fashion houses around the world today. What’s more, he was the first designer to make the move into global travel, selling in Japan, China and Russia at a time when those markets were hardly open to any products from the West.
It wasn’t just a love of fashion that drove him. Pierre Cardin was also a passionate lover of the arts and dreamed of being an actor. He opened his own theatre, Espace Cardin, in the former Café des Ambassadeurs in Paris in 1970, using it as a space to programme avant-garde theatre and music, and he had a great affection for those in the performing arts – one of the loves of his life was the actress Jeanne Moreau and it was in his own theatre that he discovered Gerard Depardieu, who was working as a stagehand at the time, and encouraged him to start acting.
Throughout the film, one key Pierre Cardin character trait is referenced again and again: his indefatigable work ethic. When asked about the secret to his eternal youth, the designer simply replies, “Work, work, work.” In 2020, both Cardin and his brand continue to carve their own way in the industry, and he remains one of the few who never went on to sell his company to a big conglomerate. As relevant today as a nonagenarian as he was in the Swinging Sixties, Naomi Campbell sums it up perfectly when she says, “People will always be inspired – he’s one of the greats.”
‘House of Cardin’ will be released on 14 August