Pierre Cardin was a fashion innovator, futurist – and a prolific businessman. His interests were as varied as furniture, restaurants, avant-garde architecture, and more pedestrian items from boxer shorts to spectacles – each bearing his distinctive signature.

Born in Italy but raised in France, Cardin began his Paris fashion career designing costumes for Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. He went from the film set to Elsa Schiaparelli’s atelier, then to Christian Dior, working on the designer’s New Look collection in 1947. Dior called him “the future of haute couture”. When Cardin set up his own house in 1950, he referred clients to his former assistant.

He opened a boutique, Eve, on the rue du Faubourg Saint-HonorĂ©, where Rita Hayworth and Eva Peron dropped in to try his signature bubble dresses – tight at the waist, billowing around the hips. Its success led Cardin to open a menswear shop – naturally called Adam – where he developed the era-defining lapelless suits beloved of The Beatles.

In 1959, he took the unheard-of step of producing a ready-to-wear collection. That a couturier would “stoop” to designing for a department store shocked his peers, and the leading industry body ejected him.

Yet Cardin brushed it off, moving on to ever more ambitious collections. Space and the future were his obsessions (he was said to be the only civilian ever to try on a NASA space suit) – helmet hats, A-line dresses with Star Trekky cutouts and vinyl miniskirts.

But the most futuristic aspect of his work was his liberal approach to licensing. Cardin understood that his name alone could earn money and lent it to fragrances, food-mixers, answering machines, mini-golf sets and sardines.

By 1985, he had sold 840 licences. “I’ve done it all,” he said. “I even have my own water!… If someone asked me to do toilet paper, I’d do it.”

His reputation has undergone a restoration, as the number of elite designers working with high street shops has skyrocketed – all thanks to Cardin and the giant leap he took for fashionkind.

Emily Cronin



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