Written by Ruth La Ferla
Pierre Cardin, the visionary designer and licensing pioneer who invented the business of fashion as it is conducted today, has died. He was 98.
His death was confirmed Tuesday by the French Academy of Fine Arts. He died at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, just outside Paris, his family said, according to Agence France-Presse.
“Fashion is not enough,” Cardin once told Eugenia Sheppard, the American newspaper columnist and fashion critic. “I don’t want to be just a designer.”
He never was just that. He clothed the famous — artists, political luminaries, tastemakers and members of the haute bourgeoisie — but he was also a merchant to the masses with an international brand, his name affixed to an outpouring of products, none too exalted or too humble to escape his avid eye.
There were bubble dresses and bath towels, aviator jumpsuits and automobiles, fragrances and ashtrays, even pickle jars. Planting his flag on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, he proceeded to turn the country’s fashion establishment on its head, reproducing fashions for mass, ready-to-wear consumption and dealing a blow to the elitism that had governed the Parisian couture.
In a career of more than three-quarters of a century, Cardin remained a futurist.
“He had this wonderful embrace of technology and was in love with the notion of progress,” said Andrew Bolton, head curator at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In 1958, Cardin put models in crash helmets matched with tiny skirts and colored stockings. He dressed men, and women, in spacesuits. In 1969, NASA commissioned him to create an interpretation of a spacesuit, a signal inspiration in his later work.
“The dresses I prefer,” he said at the time, “are those I invent for a life that does not yet exist.”
His designs were influenced by geometric shapes, often rendered in synthetic fabrics like silver foil, paper and brightly colored vinyl. The materials would shape the dominant aesthetic of the early 1960s. It was a new silhouette that “denied the body’s natural contours and somehow seemed asexual,” Bolton said.
“His ability to sculpt fabric with an architectural sensibility was his real signature,” he added.
Cardin drew inspiration from everywhere, be it the pagodas he visited in China, op art painting or automotive design.
“I’m always inspired by something outside, not by the body itself,” he told The New York Times in 1985. Clothing, he said, was meant “to give the body its shape, the way a glass gives shape to the water poured into it.”
Yet his men’s ready-to-wear designs, introduced in 1960, were decidedly more faithful to the body’s outlines. Built on narrow shoulders, high armholes and a fitted waist, they were streamlined and somewhat severe, dispensing in some cases with traditional collars in favor of the simple banded Nehru, a namesake adaptation of the style worn by the Indian prime minister.
Those suits were slow to catch on in the United States — until the Beatles appeared in knockoff versions on the Ed Sullivan television show in 1966. Nehru-mania ensued.
Cardin had laid the foundations for a global empire by the late 1950s. At a time when France was fashion’s uncontested epicenter, he was bringing his designs to Moscow, Tokyo and Beijing, doing more to erode international boundaries than any designer of the day.
In 1957, he became the first to forge business ties with Japan and by 1959 he was selling his fashions there. He sensed a vast, untapped market for fashionable clothing in Central Europe and Asia, and by the end of the 1960s was offering his designs for mass production in China. In 1983, Cardin became the first French couturier to penetrate the Soviet Union: His designs were manufactured in Soviet factories and sold under the Cardin label in Cardin boutiques in Moscow.
He conceived of himself above all as a prolific ideas man, relishing his role as the overseer of a realm that encompassed clothing accessories, furniture, household products and fragrances sold through some 800 licensees in more than 140 countries on five continents.
Chocolates, pens, cigarettes, frying pans, alarm clocks and cassette tapes — all bore the Cardin logo, as did shoes, lingerie, blouses, neckwear, wallets, belts and, more recently, an Android tablet. By the mid-1980s, Cardin stood at the helm of a marketing organization and network of licensees paying him royalties of 5% to 12%, a stream of income that earned him the unofficial title “the Napoleon of licensers.”
“I was born an artiste,” he told The Times in 1987, “but I am a businessman.”