I first encountered the name Pierre Cardin when someone gifted me a bottle of the designer’s ‘Pour Monsieur’ eau de cologne. That was around 1986 when I was just being taught to shave. Little did I realise the fragrance had been around since 1972 and that its phallic-shaped bottle was purposely designed to connote, yes, a penis.
I also didn’t realise as a naïve teen that Pierre Cardin was so busy infiltrating lifestyles of the 1970s and ’80s, he would leave his mark and aesthetic on just about everything: A-line dresses to aeroplanes, lampshades to lounge furniture, makeup to music video to muscle cars. Heck, he even put his name to frying pans, hence pretty much everything and the kitchen sink.
Millions might recognise Pierre Cardin’s logo and ubiquitous signature but few know the individual behind the larger-than-life label. That is, until the recent release of excellent documentary film, House of Cardin, which unveils a personality and history as chequered as the geometric dresses the designer regularly sent down the runway.
In the film, Cardin explains why he talks about himself in the third person, saying “My name [is] my creations but no longer a human person. The brand is the third dimension, it is no longer me.”
And there have been many creations. In short, Cardin is a marketing genius. At 98, the designer insists on continually working, currently designing a massive (second) theatre to further his artistic passions.
House of Cardin begins with a montage of archival fashion footage, the audio made up of voiceovers declaring the label stands for ‘chic’, ‘modern’, ‘innovative’ and other obvious adjectives. The accents are exotic and varied – like the brand’s spread across the globe – until a British accent declares the man and his business to be “a little bit of a sellout”.
It’s true, Pierre Cardin has gone to extremes in his manufacturing, branding and marketing. Still, he remains one of the few designers to have held onto his name rather than sell the label to Big Fashion investors.
Just as his brand has peppered the world liberally and dotted itself along shopping strips from Australia to Zimbabwe, so too does the film come across as frenetic, energetic; a sprawl of boldness, brightness and – at times – chaos.
Where the documentary begins with a quaint black-and-white framing of a wide-eyed kid who moved to France with his family so as to flee Mussolini’s harsher-growing Italy, 10 minutes in and you’re witnessing someone bigger, bolder, with brighter ideas being taken under the wing of Dior and soon inspiring hopefuls such as Jean Paul Gaultier.
The film features testimonials from fans across all industries including fashion (Naomi Campbell), film (Sharon Stone), rock’n’roll (Alice Cooper) and business (namely his grandson and business consultant Rodrigo Basilicati).
Much of the film’s content shifts the fashion focus away from the usual designer hubs such as London, Paris and New York and explores Cardin’s spread to places where fashion and design once hardly reared their flamboyant heads. China, Japan, Russia; nations where homogeny once ruled and creativity was shunned, suddenly opening their arms to Western fare, thanks to Cardin’s flare for the soft sell.
When you see a scene of a model approaching the Great Wall wearing a giant rainbow bubble of a dress, surrounded by grey Mao-suited Chinese locals whose expressions look like they’re encountering an alien, you forget for a moment that you’re viewing archival footage, and imagine the whole thing’s been a clever exercise in Photoshopping. This is the bright mark Cardin leaves on the design stage, and the effervescence you sense from the film as a whole.
One moment, Cardin comes across as fashion socialist but soon enough he earns the criticism of opportunistic capitalist. Or he’s being dubbed a fashion futurist and feminist in the same breath. Whatever the critique, his clothes and wares have usually made an out-there statement. Even the Beatles’ famous suits from the early Sixties made a strong point: grey, yes, but certainly a flamboyant cut for men back then.
There is one element to the designer’s colourful life that bugs me, though, and that is his hush-hush approach to his closest relationships, in particular that with his design assistant Andre Oliver. Where it doesn’t take a magnifying glass to see the pair were closer than just colleagues, it’s a shame a brighter take on their closeness has never been addressed, not even here.
Surely Cardin – a man who possessed such futuristic and fantastical vision – could have found some way to express his ‘special relationship’ with Oliver.
By the film’s end, we discover that after all that hocking of his brand name, what Cardin truly wants to be – and he admits this – is an artist in the purist sense. And if he’s too old to get on stage himself to perform theatre or dance, he’s never too tired to remain active as a patron of the arts, having built Espace Cardin in Paris – a theatre for up-and-coming thespians, and now working on a bigger venture based in Venice.
At times humble, usually eccentric, ambitious, ambiguous, private but often out-there, Pierre Cardin is a man of contradictions but one who’s main mission statement seems to be ‘bigger, bolder, brighter… and the more markets, the better’.
Even if you aren’t into design and fashion, you’ll still find House of Cardin a fun and fascinating film.
‘House of Cardin’ screens from July 30 at Luna Leederville and select cinemas nationwide.