RIP Pierre Cardin | Tribute to a Brilliant, Progressive Designer

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 teenager 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 and music videos to muscle cars. Heck, he even put his name to frying pans, hence everything and the kitchen sink.

Millions might recognise Pierre Cardin’s logo and ubiquitous signature but few knew the individual behind the larger-than-life brand. That is, until the recent release of excellent documentary film, House of Cardin, which unveiled 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 no longer here is Pierre Cardin, having passed away two days before the start of 2021, a year which probably needs the Cardin touch more than any year before it, given it segues from one of the worst years in history, plagued with recession, a viral pandemic and social tension the world over.

At 98, Pierre Cardin had what you could eventually call a brilliant innings. Even in his final year he insisted on working, most notably on a mammoth second theatre to further his cement his love of performance art.

Pierre Cardin went to extremes in the fields of manufacturing, branding and marketing yet he remained one of the few designers to have held onto his name rather than sell the label to Big Fashion investors.

American actress Raquel Welch in a futuristic Pierre Cardin outfit featuring  mini skirt and scarf in plastic, worn with perspex visor, circa 1967.

Cardin’s brand has peppered the world liberally and dotted itself along shopping strips from Australia to Zimbabwe. Now being run by his grandson Rodrigo Basilicati, the aesthetic is sure to remain progressive, frenetic, energetic; a sprawl of boldness, brightness and – at times – chaos.

Naomi Campbell – just one of the many names who have great things to say about the designer.

As a designer, Cardin accomplished many ‘firsts’. First fashion designer to stock his clothing in department stores. First to be wholly immersed in the arts scene, not only dressing performers but investing in theatre houses. First to dress the Beatles in designer gear. First to present a western fashion collection in Communist China. 

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.

I strongly recommend you see the film House of Cardin. In it, Cardin occasionally comes across as fashion socialist but soon enough earns the criticism of an 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.

Cardin’s Mao-cut suits showed the rock’n’roll industry that a certain style could help sell a band.

There is one element to the designer’s colourful life that did bug me, though, and that is his hush-hush approach to his closest relationships, in particular that with his design assistant Andre Oliver. Where it didn’t take a magnifying glass to see that the pair were closer than just colleagues, it is a shame that a brighter take on their closeness has never been addressed, thereby leaving the LGBTQI community with another fashion legacy to be proud of.

Surely Cardin – a man who possessed such futuristic and fantastical vision – could have found some way to express his ‘special relationship’ with Oliver.

Still, often eccentric, always ambitious, ambiguous, private and very much out-there, Pierre Cardin is a man of contradictions but one who’s main mission statement seemed to be ‘bigger, bolder, brighter… and the more markets, the better’.

He leaves behind a family tree of 50 relatives, mostly grandchildren.

He also leaves behind a brilliant mark on the map of fashion.

Antonino Tati

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