Many eyes were opened in 1967. Pierre Cardin came to India for the first time with his iconic brand and a seminal show of textiles that he had bought from the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation of India. For the show, he fashioned garments out of various Indian weaves and fabrics. This was the first time that Indian textiles devised as contemporary fashion had been showcased on an international ramp. I met him and his partner Andre and volunteered to model for the show, but in reality, I was keen to show off my sketches of fashion design. Monsieur Cardin liked my sketches enough to ask me to come to Paris. He sensed an innate potential in India and its textiles, and used to marvel at their inbuilt sense of design and structure. “You have a flair,” he would say, agreeing that the most contemporary thing about India, then, and even now, was its handmade textiles. They had a certain “antiquity” and yet could be fashioned into anything one wanted. He used silks over silk prints, and mixed tussar with wool, and he did it all with aplomb and a certain bravado.
I joined him in Paris in 1969 where I had gone to study graphics on a French government scholarship. Working with Cardin from 1969 till 1971, I headed his “Laboratoire des Idées”, or the “Laboratory of ideas” to seek transdisciplinary experiences and markets. It was his unique endeavour to reach out and touch all aspects of lifestyles, going beyond fashion. By then, he was becoming a household name all over the world. I remember being put up in a large home, which, for a 19-year-old, was quite something. Till date, he remains my first and only boss.
When everyone was obsessed with haute couture, Cardin started designing pret-a-porter, or ready-to-wear clothing. He started to talk about fashion as something that would no longer be the purview of the rich. Finally, everyone understood this because they saw him laughing all the way to the bank. He was ridiculed by the larger haute couture fraternity for downsizing the “snob value” of fashion, but Cardin firmly believed that clothing only assumes a larger-than-life presence when it’s seen on the streets.
While I was setting up the Laboratoire des Idées, my studio was just over Cardin’s office on the sixth floor of 59, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore. Cardin later bought a huge theatre named Théâtre des Ambassadeurs in the Avenue Gabriel nearby and renamed it Espace Pierre Cardin. We worked on fashioning it as a restaurant, theatre and exhibition space. We used to have long discussions about what contemporary meant, in terms of the way we lived.
The first thing he asked me to make was a chocolate box. We also designed car interiors, planes and, yes, flower bouquets. It wasn’t just about fashion any more. Cardin was so hugely intuitive and extremely sharp in commerce that he could have been a banker. He could understand figures in number and form. He faced criticism with the “licensing” and “franchising” model that he adopted, but he didn’t care because it generated large capital.
I have some early sketches from Cardin that we made in the studio from the late Sixties, which could have only been constructed by hand. These designs could only have been created by blending architecture and fashion. He was the first to blend engineering with volume in fabric and the result was what the world saw on the ramp as unbelievable garments never seen before. People who wore Cardin were never ridiculed for wearing “outlandish” creations, but were respected for their passion for the modern. Indian designers need to celebrate the genius of Cardin so we can be grateful to someone who was the first to tell the “India story”.
During the ongoing pandemic, when the fashion world is grappling with a new world order, I believe Cardin would have had a very different response. He was no longer creating in his salon but his sense of innovative entrepreneurship would have stretched the very idea of smart clothing with the latest technology. We need to have intelligent design, the kind that Cardin pioneered. In India, we are sadly reduced to being a copy of a copy, and have restricted ourselves to bridal trousseaus without even an edge for the bespoke. India has yet to embrace the everyday pret-a-porter life, as pioneered by Cardin.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 31, 2020, under the title “Fashion for all”. The writer is the founder-trustee and chairman of Asian Heritage Foundation
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