French fashion designer Pierre Cardin possessed a wildly inventive artistic sensibility tempered by a stiff dose of business sense. He had no problem acknowledging that he earned more from a pair of stockings than from a haute-couture gown with a six-figure price tag.
Cardin, who died Tuesday at age 98, was the ultimate entrepreneurial designer. He understood the importance his exclusive haute couture shows played in stoking consumer desire and became an early pioneer of licensing. His name emblazoned hundreds of products, from accessories to home goods.
“The numbers don’t lie,” Cardin said in a 1970 French television interview. “I earn more from the sale of a necktie than from the sale of a million-franc dress. It’s counterintuitive, but the accounts prove it. In the end, it’s all about the numbers.”
The French Academy of Fine Arts announced Cardin’s death in a tweet. He had been among its illustrious members since 1992. The academy did not give a cause of death or say where the designer died.
Designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, who made his debut in Cardin’s maison, paid tribute to his mentor on Twitter: “Thank you Mister Cardin to have opened for me the doors of fashion and made my dream possible.”
Along with fellow Frenchman Andre Courreges and Spain’s Paco Rabanne, two other Paris-based designers known for their avant-garde Space Age styles, Cardin revolutionized fashion starting in the early 1950s.
At a time when other Paris labels were obsessed with flattering the female form, Cardin’s designs cast the wearer as a sort of glorified hanger, there to showcase the sharp shapes and graphic patterns of the clothes. Created for neither pragmatists nor wallflowers, his designs were all about making a big entrance — sometimes very literally.
Gowns and bodysuits in fluorescent spandex were fitted with plastic hoops that stood away from the body at the waist, elbows, wrists and knees. Bubble dresses and capes enveloped their wearers in oversized spheres of fabric. Toques were shaped like flying saucers; bucket hats sheathed the models’ entire head, with cutout windshields at the eyes.
“Fashion is always ridiculous, seen from before or after. But in the moment, it’s marvelous,” Cardin said in the 1970 interview.
A quote on his label’s website summed up his philosophy: “The clothing I prefer is the one I create for a life that does not yet exist, the world of tomorrow.”
Cardin’s name embossed thousands of products, from wristwatches to bed sheets. In the brand’s heyday, goods bearing his fancy cursive signature were sold at some 100,000 outlets worldwide.
That number dwindled dramatically in later years, as Cardin products were increasingly regarded as cheaply made and his clothing designs — which, decades later, remained virtually unchanged from its ’60s-era styles — felt dated.
A savvy businessman, Cardin used his fabulous wealth to snap up top-notch properties in Paris, including the belle epoque restaurant Maxim’s, which he also frequented. His flagship store, located next to the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris, continues to showcase eye-catching designs.
Cardin was born on July 7, 1922, in a small town near Venice, Italy, to a modest, working-class family. When he was a child, the family moved to Saint Etienne in central France, where Cardin was schooled and became an apprentice to a tailor at age 14.
Cardin later embraced a status as a self-made man, saying in the 1970 TV interview that going it alone “makes you see life in a much more real way and forces you to take decisions and to be courageous.
“It’s much more difficult to enter a dark woods alone than when you already know the way through,” he said.
After moving to Paris, he worked as an assistant in the House of Paquin starting in 1945 and also helped design costumes for the likes of filmmaker Jean Cocteau. He was involved in creating the costumes for the director’s 1946 hit, “Beauty and the Beast.”
After working briefly with Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior, Cardin opened his own fashion house in Paris’ posh 1st district, starting with costumes and masks.
Cardin delivered his first real collection in 1953. Success quickly followed, with the 1954 launch of the celebrated “bubble” dress, which put the label on the map.
Cardin staged his first ready-to-wear show in 1959 at Paris’ Printemps department store, a bold initiative that got him temporarily kicked out of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Cardin’s relationship with the organization — the governing body of French fashion — was rocky, and he later left of his own volition to stage shows on his own terms.
Cardin’s high-profile relationship with French actress Jeanne Moreau, the smoky-voiced blonde of “Jules and Jim” fame, also helped boost the brand’s profile. Described by both as a “true love,” the couple’s relationship lasted about five years, though they never married.
For Cardin, the astronomical expense of producing haute-couture collections was an investment. Even though the clothing’s pharaonic prices didn’t cover the cost of crafting the made-to-measure garments, media coverage generated by the couture shows helped sell affordable items, like hats, belts and underwear.
As Cardin’s fame and fortune spiked, so did his real estate portfolio. He long lived an austere, almost monastic existence with his sister in a sprawling apartment just across from the Elysee Palace and bought up so much topflight real estate in the neighborhood that fashion insiders joked he could have mounted a coup d’état.
In addition to his women’s and men’s clothing boutiques, Cardin opened a children’s shop, a furniture store and the Espace Cardin, a sprawling hall in central Paris where the designer would later stage fashion shows, as well as plays, ballet performances and other cultural events.
Beyond clothes, Cardin put his stamp on perfumes, makeup, porcelain, chocolates, a resort in the south of France and even the velvet-walled watering hole Maxim’s — where he could often be seen at lunch.
The 1970s saw a huge Cardin expansion that brought his outlets to more than 100,000, with about as many workers producing under the Cardin label worldwide.
Cardin was in the vanguard in recognizing the importance of Asia, both as a manufacturing hub and for its consumer potential. He was present in Japan starting in the early 1960s, and in 1979 became the first Western designer to stage a fashion show in China.
In 1986, he inked a deal with Soviet authorities to open a showroom in the Communist nation to sell clothes locally made under his label.
In his later life, with no heir apparent, Cardin dismantled much of his vast empire, selling dozens of his Chinese licenses to two local firms in 2009.
Two years later, he told the Wall Street Journal that he’d be willing to sell his entire company, at that point including an estimated 500-600 licenses , for $1.4 billion.