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

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!