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Fashion’s extra-terrestrial: The genius of Pierre Cardin

A still from House of Cardin, released via Blue Finch Film - Credit: Pierre Cardin Archive

For a man with a celebrated line of fragrances, it’s no surprise that Pierre Cardin comes out of a new documentary smelling of roses.

“We kept digging for dirt,” concedes one of the film’s directors, Todd Hughes. “But we kept striking gold.”

So, adorned by celebs including Dionne Warwick, Naomi Campbell and Sharon Stone, House of Cardin takes a sparkling look back at the creative legacy of a giant of European fashion and design. Starting with the fact that Pierre Cardin is actually Italian.

I did not know that. His family fled Mussolini when little Pietro was two years old, a journey he claims to have some memory of. And the film is full of such little facts, such as his work with Jean Cocteau on La Belle et La Bete and his connection to the film giants Visconti and Pasolini. “I was very good looking as a young man, and they all wanted to sleep with me,” is the response.

A still from Pierre Cardin documentary House of Cardin – Credit: Pierre Cardin Archives

Directed by husband and husband filmmakers P David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, the film does probe Cardin’s sexuality, with some focus on his long-time partner Andre Oliver who died of AIDS in 1993. According to the directors, Cardin’s homosexuality was rarely talked about in public. Says Hughes: “We showed the film last year pre-pandemic at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris in front of all these French dignitaries, and we were basically outing him, in his 90s, someone who’s considered a pillar of French society. He knew what was in the film and he let us include it all. And no one batted an eyelid.”

Cardin was, in fact, more famous for an early 1960s love affair with the great French actress Jeanne Moreau, star of Jules et Jim and Ascenseur pour L’echafaud. “But he did have other lovers and boyfriends,” says Ebersole. “We met someone in Palm Springs who got picked up by Cardin in the 70s and there were boyfriends right the way through, although always very secret – we didn’t even meet his companion all the time we were following Pierre around.”

Which they did for nearly a year while Cardin was a still very sprightly 95. He died in Paris only four months ago, at the age of 98, having overseen the growth of a global empire, having been the first of the haute couture designers to expand into menswear and into markets such as Japan, China and Russia.

And it was success in America that first secured his fortune, when his pleated tangerine coat sold over 200,000 units, something he’s clearly very proud of as he shows young students around the museum of his pieces still boastful of the story.

Pierre Cardin in House of Cardin – Credit: Blue Finch Film Releasing

The Cardin we see in this film is a kindly presence, impish about his own achievements yet calm and smiling, still going about his business, signing off on designs, touring his stores and overseeing arrangements for theatre shows.  As well as sitting down for an interview at the famous Paris restaurant Maxim’s which he had owned since 1981. I did not know that, either.

As well as the famous talking heads assembled, which also include Jean Paul Gautier and Philippe Starck who both worked at Cardin, the directors make smart use of archive footage, from old newsreel of fashion shows to many clips of interviews with the younger man, a more forthright figure than the genial, twinkling emperor we see laughing over memories of his phallus-shaped best-selling perfume bottle.

In an old clip, he’s asked for one single word to describe himself. “Exigeant,” says Cardin. But how would Ebersole and Hughes describe their subject?

“Wacky, funny, very sweet,” says Ebersole.

“Bright, genius and very unassuming for someone who runs an empire.” says Hughes. “And very instinctual.”

A still from House of Cardin, released via Blue Finch Film – Credit: Pierre Cardin Archives

The directors, passionate collectors, were in Paris looking for Cardin knick-knacks when they stumbled on the designer’s museum, which was closed. They were somehow led to catching a glimpse of Cardin himself – “we didn’t even know there was an actual Pierre Cardin, who was a real person” –  and, having introduced themselves as documentarians, they found themselves sitting down for coffee with Cardin and being told, “Yes, we make the film now.”

Cardin had never made a documentary before, nor agreed to one. But this theme of serendipity and destiny crops up regularly in the film – he gave Jean Paul Gaultier a job at first sight and hired Philippe Starck the day the young designer showed up with an armful of sketches. Former model Maryse Gaspard recounts how Cardin simply hired her on the spot in 1965 and now she is still working for him as director of couture and brand ambassador.

Similarly, he met Japanese model Hiroko Matsumoto on his first trip to Tokyo in 1960 and brought her back to Paris to be the perfect muse for his futuristic and other-worldly clothes designs, making her the first-ever Asian model on the catwalk and French magazine covers.

It seems Cardin himself felt ruled by destiny since childhood. The son of wine merchants in Italy, his parents lost a fortune in WWI and settled in Vichy France where the young Pierre worked for the Red Cross. His mother indulged his creativity and, although his father wanted him to be an architect  allowed him to go to Paris with only a single contact in the whole fashion business, at the house of Paquin.

A still from House of Cardin, released via Blue Finch Film – Credit: © Pierre Cardin Archives

Cardin went to the wrong address – confusing the Rue St Honore with the more fashion-populated Rue du Faubourg St Honore – he still bumped into the right man and got a job on the spot. By 1947, he was head tailor at Dior, had worked with Elsa Schiaparelli and launched his own first collection in 1954. He dressed The Beatles in collarless round neck suits.

This trust in his own instinct seems to have made Cardin himself confident enough to spread his brand widely, perhaps too widely for many tastes, certainly of many in the stiff world of haute couture, who initially turned their back on Cardin when he began producing pret-a-porter collections. From ground-breaking forays into formerly untapped fashion markets with his clothes, Cardin put his stamp on everything from cookware to wallets, handbags, electric razors, private jets, cigarettes, cars and eyewear – even Roger Moore’s James Bond ski goggles in For Your Eyes Only.

Cardin found himself accused of being a sell-out, of cheapening his own brand with his relentless licensing deals. “Yes he over-sold it,” agrees Ebersole, “and it may have dirtied the brand, but it was never enough to tarnish the work of a whole career and he always bounced back if something didn’t work. You have to admire the resilience.”

Add Hughes: “The downward vortex never enveloped him because he was a very optimistic futurist, you know, he wasn’t about dystopia or the world falling apart, but the future meant expansion and possibility of what could come. He was very inspired by space travel and by the man on the moon.”

Naomi Campbell in a still from Pierre Cardin documentary House of Cardin – Credit: Blue Finch Film Releasing

Cardin is described as a “fashion extra-terrestrial.” His aesthetic preferences were always for spheres, circles and spirals, the shapes of space, from his first “hit” item, the Bubble dress, to his drinks cabinets and bar stools. I’ve visited his famous house, the Palais Bulles, a sprawling complex of bubble-shaped rooms that snakes along the Cote D’Azur cliffs and where a lavish party was held every year during the nearby Cannes Film Festival. 

The film shows him at work on all of these things. The filmmakers believe they got the job because they own and actually drive one of the few remaining Javelin Cardin cars designed for AMC in 1972. I didn’t know he had a record label, too, championing 70s jazz fusion acts such as Bernard Lubat and his Mad Ducks, Jean Luc Ponty and Eric Demarsan’s Pop Symphony. He also re-issued rare jazz recordings of piano blues, Ma Rainey and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.

“Work is my liberation,” says a younger Cardin in a clip. “To focus on an idea, an object, a shape, a material, a colour, that’s what occupies my mind.” The later Cardin admits, too, that work has been his “joy, the only happiness in life.”

There’s certainly a lot of work featured in here and you wonder how anyone could possibly come up with it all, keep tabs on it, put a stamp on it all. “I’m not here to impose,” says the great man reflecting on his career. “I am here to propose.”

And he came up with different propositions throughout his career, one of those designers who managed to be playful and creative without ever being silly, who invented looks and fabric that were out of this world but who also gave a re-think and a burst of colour and style to the most mundane objects – from ballpoint pens to towels, table lamps and cufflinks to picture frames and backgammon sets.

A still from House of Cardin, released via Blue Finch Film – Credit: Pierre Cardin Archives

“Wherever we showed the film,” says director Ebersole, “people would come up and share their Pierre Cardin story – they’d met him here, or bought such and such an item, or they’d be wearing their Cardin belt or vintage shoes, or just a tie. Each piece seems to give them a personal connection to this man, to feel part of his family-run business.”

Hughes and Ebersole tell that the other night, they were watching Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, and spotted David Bowie’s alien wearing a fully emblazoned Cardin dressing gown throughout a key scene. Something they regret they didn’t put in their film. And, since revealing their Cardin obsessions, they were recently put in touch with one of the last remaining 1981 Cardin Cadillac Evolutions, complete with in-car VHS player, and they’ve snapped it up. They believe there are only eight still on the road in the whole world.

Dionne Warwick credits Cardin with her sequinned stage persona; his experimental theatre, L’Espace Cardin, ran on the Champs Elysees for over 50 years and discovered a young actor called Gerard Depardieu. Sharon Stone says he taught her how to walk and be at her most beautiful. 

“You don’t want to gush, but this was a man who forged 20th century culture and influenced the way we see the world, with colours and aesthetics, “ says Hughes. “If it feels like we should have found people with bad words to say about him, well, we did look and it would be someone who had a tough time working for him, but they usually blame themselves, or the timing or circumstances rather than hold any grudge.

“The only ongoing rift seemed to be between Pierre and Yves Saint Laurent. They just didn’t get on. Pierre maintains that Saint Laurent was insanely jealous of him.”

House of Cardin directors P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes at home – Credit: Anthony Masterson

And let’s face it, Pierre Cardin got very rich. He buys art, chateaux, Venice palazzo, and builds culture spaces. “Fashion for me, c’est la fantaisie et la folie,” he tells us after a long life giving access to both those things, for Naomi Campbell and Marlene Dietrich, for presidents and royalty, for anyone who wanted to buy into a piece of it. 

What happens now he’s gone is uncertain. Cardin is still privately-owned, not part of the big luxury brand corporations that govern many rival labels and houses. Will his family continue to resist selling? It could be a tough look at the reality of that industry and the pressures it wreaks on its designers with constant demands for creativity,  as in we’ve seen in recent films documentaries about Valentino, McQueen and Margiela. But what’s really charming and different about this film is that, after 95 years of it, Pierre Cardin looks like he’s having a bit of a laugh.

House of Cardin is streaming in the UK from Monday April 26

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