The French designer Pierre Cardin, who died on Tuesday at the age of 98, began his career by envisioning the “future” of dress—bubble skirts, unisex fashion, geometric silhouettes. The influence of those designs still reverberates on runways. But his greatest contribution to the fashion world was his second and more lucrative act: blazoning his name on everything in sight.
Millennials know names like Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, and Vera Wang who started making clothes and ended up with lines of bedding, home goods, or heavily discounted handbags. To “make it” as a designer in 2020 means both showing at fashion week and hawking $100 comforter sets at Home Depot, as Christian Siriano began doing this year. It was not always this way—these creators are all charting a course that Cardin essentially created.
Cardin was born in Italy to a wine merchant father, but the family fled to France in the mid-1920s to escape fascism. He left home at the age of 17 to make women’s clothing, ultimately working with Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior after the war.
He began his own haute couture house in 1950; by the end of the decade, Cardin had created a ready-to-wear collection. It was a move deemed gauche by the upper echelons, but Cardin relished the opportunity to bring some glamour to the lives of everyday people—and spend the money it brought him.
In 1964, Cardin dressed the Beatles in their famous collarless suits; the futuristic, so-called Cylinder jacket set the tone for a decade enamored with the promise of a Space Age. It-girls of the era like Jackie Kennedy, Mia Farrow, and Jeanne Moreau—who he dated for four years—all repped his designs.
Cardin began selling his name off on cosmetics and perfume in the 1960s. At first, it did little to dull his cachet. He designed for NASA and Pakistan International Airlines and opened a boutique furniture store in 1975. He launched his own venue on the Champs-Élysées Garden where he would host fashion shows and curate cultural programming. He named it, of course, Espace Cardin.
The fashion establishment now mourning Cardin’s passing venerated the man but also looked down on his money-making path with a bit of snobbery. “The Sun Never Sets on His Empire,” read a 1981 New York Times headline, detailing Parisian society “shuddering” at Cardin’s latest non-fashion venture. That same year, Cardin bought Maxim’s, “arguably the world’s most famous restaurant.” He would open more franchises across the globe and license out Maxim’s-branded food products. To much snickering, his name would soon be on sardine cans.
“Everyday people ask me for my signature on something,” Cardin said in that interview, though he hardly seemed to mind. He was secretive about his earnings, but the Times estimated that at the dawn of the ’80s his deals could be worth $400 million. WWD reported in 1986 that his personal fortune was more than $10 million, “probably” making Cardin “Europe’s wealthiest designer.”
“They criticize me and then they do the same thing,” Cardin noted of critics who complained of his cash-grabbing. Though an infamous control freak, Cardin liked to spin his success as a means to humanitarianism.
“I create jobs—that’s real socialism,” he added. “I don’t make money just to have money. I’ve spent lots of money on my theater. I’m a socialist who works for society.”
But a lonely one. Numerous outlets reported on Cardin’s lack of a social circle. He never married or liked to comment much on his personal life. André Oliver, a young arts student, became his assistant in 1952, and they began a 40-year long partnership.
Despite his micromanaging tendencies, Cardin worked closely enough with Oliver to allow him to take a bow onstage after their fashion shows. Oliver died of AIDS complications in 1993.
Cardin insisted he was strategic about deals and partnerships, telling the Times in 2002 that everything was “Under [his] direction, of course!”
“I’ve done it all! I even have my own water!” he marveled in that interview. “I’ll do perfumes, sardines. Why not? During the way, I would have rather smelled the scent of sardines than of perfume. If someone asked me to do toilet paper, I’d do it. Why not?”
That shameless declaration, especially coming from someone who had experienced—and vowed to never return to—wartime austerity, might come off as refreshing when viewed in the lens of the overly exclusive fashion set. Still, Cardin entered the new millennium a full-blown sellout. As Highsnobiety put it, “The brand never recovered from this loss of credibility... and was often quoted as the brand you didn’t want to end up like.”
Tell that to the man who ended up owning 30 homes around the world, including his “Bubble Palace” on the French Riviera, created by Antti Lovag. Though Cardin spent 15 years trying to find someone willing to cough up the asking price of his brand (one billion euros), he later decided against it.
“I can afford to die without selling it,” he told Business of Fashion. The trade publication reported that Rodrigo Basilicati, a great-nephew, served as an administrator of Pierre Cardin Evolution, but “Cardin declined to say if Basilicati was his designated heir.”
At the age of 80, in the 2002 Times interview, Cardin reflected on his life and career. “There were people before me, and there will be people after me,” he said. “I epitomized a moment in fashion. Historically, I think I was important to fashion. A legacy is not my goal. I did what I did driven by passion, enthusiasm, and talent.”
He threw out some accolades—”every magazine cover imaginable,” and “a social life of the highest order.” He had it all, he said. “More is too much.”
He hoped to “continue my life as I have—and to die while working.”