Pierre Cardin and His World of Tomorrow

by Christina Donoghue on 11 January 2021

On 29 December 2020, it was announced that one of the last men standing from the golden age of couture Pierre Cardin had sadly passed away. Here we look back on Cardin’s life, some of the moments which came to define the iconic designer's career and how he not only changed the future of fashion but lived it too.

On 29 December 2020, it was announced that one of the last men standing from the golden age of couture Pierre Cardin had sadly passed away. Here we look back on Cardin’s life, some of the moments which came to define the iconic designer's career and how he not only changed the future of fashion but lived it too.

Pierre Cardin was a French-Italian fashion designer, born to French wine merchants, near Treviso, Italy on 2 July 1922, the last of 11 children. During Mussolini's reign, the family fled back to their homeland, France, where they found themselves under Nazi occupation in Vichy. During this period, despite Cardin's parents wanting him to be an architect, the young budding designer earned his trade as a tailor and worked alongside the Red Cross.

Armed with exceptional talent and a ferocious imagination, Cardin, like many creatives from his period, also appeared to possess the desirable qualities of luck and fate, proven when he went to visit a fortune teller who told him he would become 'exceptionally successful.' Not believing a word of it, he tried his luck to see if she had any contacts in Paris where his dream was to work for a fashion house. She did, so off Cardin went to the French capital, and upon asking someone on the street for directions, it turned out to be the very same contact given by the fortune teller. He showed up at Paquin, one of France's leading fashion houses of the time named after the designer Jeanne Paquin, where he met the writer and film director Jean Cocteau; work immediately began on the costumes for the 1946 avant-garde film Beauty and the Beast. It was during this period that Cardin briefly worked with the Surrealist-inspired designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Still, before long he had moved onto working under Christian Dior's guidance after Cocteau had introduced the pair. Cardin helped birth Dior’s 1947 collection that would be best remembered for The New Look Dior. Featuring slightly rounded shoulders, a full-bodied and always a cinched waist, the ‘new look’ represented the pinnacle of opulence and extravagance.

After just five years of working for Dior, Cardin was well-known enough to lead with his own business and creativity, so with Dior’s help, he set up a boutique called Eve on the Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The Eve years oversaw Cardin designing the famed 1954 bubble dress; tight at the waist, billowing at the thigh and narrow at the hem. The bubble dress became an overnight sensation (globally) and saw his client list boast the likes of Hollywood starlets Rita Hayworth and Eva Peron.

Disruptive for all the right reasons, Pierre Cardin wasn't your average 'look-to-the future' 'boundary-breaking' designer in the swinging 60s. The decade was a time full of subversion; people were protesting against the Vietnam war, girls were wearing hemlines half the length they were before thanks to Mary Quant (and most notably, The Avengers costume designer John Bates) the contraceptive pill was born, Bridget Riley saw her optical illusion canvases worn as dresses and music became more rebellious by the second. While the rest of the world was looking to the future, Cardin was the future, embodying and leading the space-age craze that started with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, which informed the fashion and style of the period (the set and costume in Raquel Welch's 1970 futuristic Space Dance can confirm). Cardin completely revolutionised what fashion meant to the masses - leading somewhat of a rebellion in menswear that saw him rip up the traditional rule-book and go on to design the infamous collarless jackets famously worn by The Beatles. Cardin believed (although controversially at the time) that everyone was entitled to enjoy clothes no matter their age, budget, nor where they lived.

'While the rest of the world was looking to the future, Cardin was the future.'

The term 'pushing boundaries' is a standardised term used in fashion today, so much so that it's almost become watered down, an 'eye-roll of a phrase' some may suggest - but when it is applied to Pierre Cardin, the term is not used lightly. In 1959 Cardin, age 37, exhibited the first-ever ready-to-wear show at the department store Printemps. His reason for doing so? Cardin didn't want to just dress people who were 'somebody,' he wanted to branch out much further than that, itching to dress those outside of a high-flying luxury world; the ordinary, the girls on the street. As much as the young designer understood the ornate intricacy of couture at the time (a journalist once wrote in 1958 that 'because of his vast knowledge of construction, tailoring, and sculptural-architectural proportions, Cardin is the only Paris couturier, outside of Balenciaga, who is not only a designer but an excellent fitter and cutter') it didn't necessarily attract him. 'My aim was the street, that my name and my creations be on the street.' Cardin famously said. 'Celebrities, princesses were not my cup of tea. I respected them, I dined with them, but I could not see them in my dresses. In any case, they would have looked ridiculous.' Throughout his life, the designer stuck to this mantra believing that beauty wasn't only obtained by those with money. Asked in 1998 if things were 'good or bad' in the fashion industry, his response was 'Bad. People look too much to Hollywood stars and fashion magazines for inspiration; it's a Baroque interpretation.'

As a result of Cardin's aspirations, pret-a-porter happened, and Cardin was subsequently thrown out of the ruling French fashion body, the Chambre Syndicale (now the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode) for doing so. (He was invited back a mere three years later in the realisation that the move was not subversive but utterly visionary; something Cardin proved himself to be time and time again through his seven-decade long career.)

As a part of his aim to democratise fashion, Cardin franchised his name more than any other designer, believing that 'the name is more important than the self.' But as writer Laird Borrelli-Persson well-noted in Vogue, the downside of this was that 'as the designer's licensing and sub-licensing deals grew, his name seemed to exist independent of any one product.' Despite Cardin's aims to license his brand, his look will be remembered forever - even if you think you haven't seen it, you definitely have. The Cardin line, silhouette and shape can be recognised in a heartbeat, made prominent by his 1964 Cosmos collection which put both men and women in tunic and hose, anticipating the genderless and unisex collections of the future, seen on the catwalk today. Rather fitting for a designer who once said 'The clothes I prefer are those I have created for a life that does not yet exist, the world of tomorrow.' A world of tomorrow he created indeed, by inventing fabrics such as an early tech material that could be heat treated to hold embossed designs, creating the now-common genderless collections and even anticipating the arrival and success of ready-to-wear collections telling WWD in 1967, 'ready-to-wear is the only way to make money.' Because of the adventurous and playful attitude he brought to fashion and design (his ex-assistant Jean Paul Gaultier told Laurence Benaïm, founder of Stiletto magazine, 'With him, I learned you could make a hat from a chair’) Cardin's work will survive this generation and the next and the next, in one way or another.

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