The moment my younger brother got a news alert on 29 December of Pierre Cardin’s passing at the age of 98, he shouted from across the living room: “Pierre… the pen guy… he’s died.” The man who gave his name to everything, from clothes, restaurants, accessories and houseware to furniture, perfumes, even a theatre, in a ground-breaking career stretching seven decades, was known to a post-millennial, a devout pen fan, as only a master of penmaking. It’s not just ignorance at play, though.
“Many youngsters are not aware of Cardin’s work,” design guru Rajeev Sethi tells me, while we sit in his Mehrauli office and sift through leather files filled with sepia-tinted paper sheets, carrying sketches he made during his first job under the French fashion designer in the late 1960s. “You know, that’s exactly what people told Cardin, that you are reducing the idea of haute couture by spreading yourself too thin. But he was more interested in getting the brand known then. It’s difficult to say who’s right… he did make a lot of money.”
That was the unique thing about Cardin, the first couturier ever to transform his name into a global brand. He was not just a fashion innovator but also a great marketeer. In the 2010 book, Pierre Cardin: 60 Years Of Innovation, Jean-Pascal Hesse, long-time director of communications for the label, writes, “He looks at balance sheets just to see what he can acquire next. Galaxies of business opportunities unfold before his eyes, a veritable parade of fashion, hotels, restaurants. He owns so much that he likes to say, with great pride, that he is self-sufficient. He can drink his own wine, or his mineral water, go to his own theatre, eat in his own restaurants, stay in his own hotels, sleep on his very own sheets, wear his own clothing and cologne. Only his Pierre Cardin cigarettes, manufactured by the millions in China, never reach him. An oversight? No, he does not smoke.”
What drove him? “Money, of course. Also, power,” insists Sethi, who describes his first boss as “excitable, compassionate… and astute”. “He also had a tough childhood. Hardship is a great leveller.”
Cardin was born in 1922 in San Biagio di Callalta, near Venice, in northern Italy. His parents were wealthy landowners who were ruined during the war. To escape fascism, they settled in France in 1924. At 14, he began an apprenticeship with a tailor in Saint Etienne. Four years later, he moved to Vichy, the capital of occupied France, and began his actual training in couture. In November 1945, a 23-year-old Cardin arrived in Paris. He went on to work on his craft, and designed mesmerising sets and costumes for the film Beauty And The Beast with poet, artist and director Jean Cocteau in 1947. After a stint with Christian Dior as a pattern cutter on the feminine “New Look” fashion of post-World War II, he set up his own maison de couture in 1950 with 20,000 francs. He quickly gained fame, creating the now legendary bubble dress—a loose-fitting dress that gathers at the waist and hem and balloons at the thighs—in 1954.
Soon, he did something no designer had ever done. He introduced the concept of prêt-à-porter for haute couture.
In 1959, Cardin presented a ready-to-wear show at department store Printemps in Paris. The fashion industry was shocked. The elite Chambre Syndicale, the French association of haute couture designers, even expelled him following the show. He was later reinstated. “It (prêt-à-porter for haute couture) was a big no-no at that time. People thought it had no class. It still is so,” recalls Sethi. “But guess who was laughing to the bank.”
The India connection
Cardin had a pivotal to play in the Indian fashion story, which Sethi says, is hardly talked about any more.
“India has a huge debt to pay to Pierre. Pierre Cardin started fashion in India. He took Indian textiles across the world before anyone else did,” he says, while showing me Indian prints-inspired swatches clipped to the sketches he made while working for him. “He was able to immediately see the edge India had, the design, colour forms, which nobody else could see. India could be ancient and modern. That’s what he saw,” he explains.
In 1967, at the Ashoka hotel, the only five-star hotel at that time in Delhi, Cardin presented his collection—all made using Indian textiles—to a packed room, with Sonia Gandhi, then fiancé to Rajiv, sitting to the right of her prospective mother-in-law Indira Gandhi with Sanjay Gandhi alongside in the front row.
Sethi, then 19, was also at the event with a bag full of his sketches. “I wanted to show him my work. I was such a big fan. Of course, we didn’t meet that day, but years later I was lucky enough to see closely the art of Pierre Cardin,” he says. “I wish today’s generation sees his magic beyond his pens.”