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Pierre Cardin: Last Of The Fashion Emperors

The question of selling his holdings continues to follow the Italian-born Parisian designer, who was always as much a businessman as a master craftsman.

Pierre Cardin, second from right
Pierre Cardin, second from right
Anne Fulda

PARIS - When the legendary fashion designer Pierre Cardin first announced that he wanted to put his business up for sale, the idea probably popped up out of nowhere, though it must have been uttered in his halting way of speaking. But he also will tell you why it isn't really such a big deal. "Yes, I do want to sell, so what? Everyone knows that," he might have said. After all, he has been regularly flouting the possibility for the last 15 years, sometimes maybe with the sole goal of knowing how much his empire is worth. But it's still not quite clear whether he wants to part with his creation after all.

Businessman, producer, restaurant (the famous Maxim's) and theater (L'Espace Gabriel) owner, Pierre Cardin sometimes gives the impression that he needs to check that he is really the owner of a vast and wonderful empire; that he, an Italian immigrant and working-class boy thirsty for revenge, is really the last fashion emperor. And what an emperor he is! A self-made man who learned his trade as he went, the now 88-year-old Pierre Cardin seems completely impervious to the passing of time, maybe because he is so bent on not slowing down one bit.

The fashion designer – who likes repeating that "he too, was young once" – seems stuck in the golden epoch of the 1960s when he revolutionized fashion and no one could resist his insolent beauty. Walking into the Pierre Cardin shop in Paris, located on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré is like entering a time warp: models wear the same colorful dresses that won their designer a reputation for avant-garde.

The fashion emperor is fond of reminding people of his Venetian roots, and he has clearly not forgotten where he comes from. The adventure started when his two parents fled fascist Italy and sought refuge in France. Then ambition started gnawing away at him at a very young age: he just needed to be part of the fashion business, or the world of drama or dance.

At the age of 17, the young man got on his bike and pedalled all the way to the French Capital, only to be arrested by the Germans at the demarcation line. During the occupation years, he divided his time between fabric cutting in a fashion store and working as an accountant for the Red Cross in Vichy. An intimate knowledge of both fashion and numbers, clothes and business, this is what makes Pierre Cardin so special. For, unlike Yves Saint Laurent who kept himself aloof from any financial matters, Cardin is an artist who can count, or, inversely, a finance man who can draw. He does everything himself – there is no official banker around him to help him with his money, he even "signs his checks himself."

In 1945, the boy to whom a clairvoyant once predicted a glorious future in which "your name will travel all around the world" finally arrived in Paris. Here, he managed to take a job at Paquin, a prestigious fashion house at that time, where he astonishes everyone with his quick learning. He met Jean Cocteau and designed the costumes for his The Beauty and the Beast movie, and made acquaintance with Christian Dior, who was then founding his own couture house.

The black sheep of the fashion world

After working with the inventor of the new look for a few years, Cardin launched his own collections. His "bubble dress' brought him world acclaim in 1954, and four years later he joined Printemps and launched himself into the prêt-à-porter business. But dressing the elegant beauties of the French bourgeoisie was not enough to keep him afloat: he needed to find more work for his employees, and a way to create clothes suitable for both "the Duchess of Windsor and her housekeeper."

The fashion world found the idea preposterous, with his peers even went as far as expelling him from the Chambre syndicale de haute couture (French Federation of Haute Couture), only to ask him, 3 years later, to come back and chair it. An offer he turned down with gusto.

Cardin forced his way into countries such as China and Japan at a time when no one was interested in them. He met Mao, Gandhi and Brezhnev, to whom he said: "I prefer telling you right away, I am not a communist." And Brezhnev answered: "Don't worry, there are already so many communists here."

And then Cardin started handing out a multitude of licenses in order to save his brand, even with the risk of selling his name too cheaply. With their number estimated today at near 600, the fashion designer is once again the black sheep of the trade. He does not care at all, he says, as long as the money keeps pouring in. Drawing in his atelier every day, financing artistic projects, Pierre Cardin has the life he has always dreamed of. He can go into raptures over a small shabby Russian hotel just as he can fall in love with magnificent residences such as the Marquis de Sade's castle, which he purchased a few years ago.

Some describe Cardin as very generous, others a little bit less so. His friend and writer Jean-Marie Rouart praises him for being "very real, natural, and someone who is looking for talent everywhere. Someone who can do a lot of things and takes pleasure in everything." Recalling a trip they took together in Russia back in 2002, Rouart says "People acclaimed him like a rock star."

In the face of such a destiny, does it really matter whether Pierre Cardin sells his fashion empire or not? Does it matter that some experts laugh at him when he claims that his empire is worth one billion euros? Pierre Cardin does not care about any of that. His favorite story, no matter what happens, remains his own.

Read the original article in French.

Photo – Alexandre_Rangel

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