French fashion designer Pierre Cardin died last week at age 98. Famous for his futuristic, often androgynous, designs and his extensive licensing deals that blazed a trail for other entrepreneurial designers, Cardin was that rare artiste as talented in business as in fashion. He was also that rare designer who, despite countless opportunities over the years, never sold his company. According to a statement from his family, Cardin’s great-nephew Rodrigo Basilicati Cardin will now take over the business and properties.
To list Cardin’s accomplishments would take several volumes. His creations adorned stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Jeanne Moreau, Jackie Kennedy, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and more! His property purchases included a castle in Provence and the famous Maxim’s restaurant in Paris, which Cardin turned into a global chain. He was among the first foreign designers to open shops in Japan, China, and Russia.
Born Pietro in a small town in Italy in 1922, Cardin’s family relocated to France to escape fascism when he was just two years old. Convincing his parents that he wanted to study the arts rather than follow his father into the wine business, he attended art school and began his career working on the costumes of Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast.” In 1946, he was hired as a tailor by Christian Dior; four years later, at the age of 28, Cardin launched his own haute couture brand. But hoping to make designer clothing more accessible, he created his first ready-to-wear collection for Printemps department store in 1959; the move was considered so outrageous that Cardin was kicked out of the Chambre Syndicale, the body governing French haute couture. He was later reinstated.
Menswear execs who knew Cardin remember him fondly. Says Steve Weiner, former head of Pierre Cardin Tailored Clothing, then a division of Hartmarx, “Pierre Cardin was a creative genius, a brilliant businessman (the first to design for the classes and sell to the masses) and a real class act with not an ounce of arrogance. I love the story he once told me from his early years in Paris: he’d been saving all his salary to buy his father a pair of custom-made shoes. After a year of frugality, he finally accumulated enough cash to buy the shoes and was so looking forward to his father’s reaction. As he watched his dad try on the shoes, he excitedly asked “Papa, do you like them?” To which his father simply replied, “They hurt my feet.”
Recalls menswear rep John McCoy, “In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Cardin’s fashion influence was unsurpassed. He dressed the Beatles for Ed Sullivan. He put sex appeal into men’s fashion. He started the men’s designer revolution. As a young man, I was proud to have rubbed shoulders with him in Paris and New York. He was a giant and will be missed.”
Says menswear journalist Ron DiGennaro: “He was, to put it succinctly, the master, known for his modern, forward designs that changed the way the world thought of wearing clothes. The man never stopped being creative, and deserved more recognition than he ever received. Though interviewing him was intimidating, I’ll never forget his visionary way of thinking about fashion and its possibilities. He will never be replaced.”
Observes designer and author Jeffrey Banks, “His contributions to modern fashion are immeasurable. His vision was always to the future, never the past.”
And from R. Scott French, “I was lucky enough to have produced his 50th-anniversary show at Milk Studios some time back. More than 150 looks and every one was genius! He mixed vintage archival pieces with new current pieces and it all looked wholly futuristic and of the moment.”
RIP Monsieur Pierre Cardin: your contributions to the fashion industry have changed our world forever.