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Being Pierre Cardin
Tony Perrottet enters the amazing world of France’s most enduring fashion designer.
“I HAVE created a world,” Pierre Cardin tells me. “Whether you like it or not, that’s another matter!”
We’re sitting in his office, which since the 1960s has overlooked the Élysée, the French president’s palace, on the swank Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris. The unrenovated chambers are in mild chaos. Books and drawings are piled on his desk, fading newspaper clippings cover the walls; TV crews from Brazil and Japan are shuffling back and forth in the corridors outside.
But Cardin, recognisable by the shock of Warhol-esque white hair and signature black-framed glasses, is unruffled. He’s wearing his standard outfit: navy blue blazer, white-collar striped shirt with no cufflinks, understated tie, and comfortable loafers.
Not one for false modesty, he fishes out for me an array of magazine stories from around the room, about his latest designs, his theatre complex in Paris, his glamorous restaurants, his majestic new homes around Europe.
“I am poor,” he laughs.
“I feel sorry for you,” I joke feebly.
“You don’t need to feel sorry!”
The Château Sade and Cardin’s statue of the marquis.
Most of us might assume that Cardin, who turns 90 on 7th July, has been resting on his fashion laurels and the huge income from licensing his name around the world.
His place in history is assured as the legendary couturier who created the ‘bubble dress’ in the 1950s, Space Age fashions worn by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the 1960s, and popularised prêt-à-porter in the 1970s.
But fuelled by his prodigious energy, Cardin’s passions have always gone far beyond the world of fashion, leading him to dabble in almost every aspect of the arts and design.
As early as 1975, a Time magazine cover story lauded Cardin’s ability to create entire physical “environments”. He was a “shrewd fantasist who has tacked his name on to just about anything that can be nailed, glued, baked, moulded, bolted, braced, bottled, opened, shut, pushed or pulled...”.
Since then, Cardin has designed everything from watches to automobiles, aeroplanes, perfumes, chocolate bars, bathroom fittings and cigarettes, and has often boasted that he could live his entire life coming into contact with nothing but Pierre Cardin products.
And there is no sign that he is slowing down.
“People criticise me because I do everything,” he tells me. “I don’t understand why I should limit myself to one thing. It’s ridiculous!”
Intrigued, I set off to immerse myself in Cardin’s world. Pretty soon, I feel as if I too could spend my entire stay in Paris coming only into contact with PC products.
Downstairs, I realise that Cardin owns much of the real estate around the Presidential Palace and has turned it into his stores. It’s as if Alexander McQueen had bought up Downing Street in London.
Most prominent is his fashion store, the Boutique Pierre Cardin, where Cardin appears to be single-handedly leading the retro ’80s revival, with padded shoulders on every mannequin. In the menswear section, an attendant named Jean proudly shows off a gilet, a long black vest evoking a medieval doublet, and a hat with a Robin Hood look. He then produces a sleek black overcoat.
“Look at the lines,” he sighs. “It’s a masterpiece!”
The boutique is almost empty when I visit, but Jean confides that Prince recently bought up very big and Lady Gaga wore Cardin in a 2010 video shoot. Every conceivable Pierre Cardin accessory is on offer. There’s even a leather-bound designer tablet released in August 2011 to compete with the iPad.
Cardin’s distinctive furniture.
I stroll past the Pierre Cardin furniture outlet, filled with towering silver chairs, plastic radiators that open like flowers and cabinets of brilliantly lacquered wood – he prefers to call his pieces ‘utilitarian sculptures’ – and the Pierre Cardin antique house, to have lunch in the Pierre Cardin restaurant, Minim’s. (He also owns the more formal belle époque restaurant, Maxim’s de Paris, where he has added a new Art Nouveau Museum upstairs; branches have opened from Tokyo to Beijing).
I order the Nest Pierre Cardin, an appetiser created by, who else? It is a sculpted circular tower of frisée lettuce, haricot verts, onions stewed in balsamic vinegar topped with three quail eggs. This pairs well with Cardin’s own champagne line and Cardin brand mineral water.
Then I’m off to the Pierre Cardin Fashion Museum, which opened in the suburb of Saint-Ouen in 2006. (“I’ve never put anything on sale in my life!” the designer tells me. “I kept everything from the beginning, even my first coat from 1950!”)
In a vast space, 250 mannequins sport Cardin creations harking back to his earliest days working with Christian Dior. The inventiveness is still startling. One outfit after another is crafted from silver vinyl, tomato-red plastic, plexi-glass helmets and iridescent hoops.
Pierre Cardin Museum
The curator, Renée Taponier, who has worked for Cardin since she was aged 14, shows me photographs of a slender model in one of the ’60s dresses. “That’s me!” she giggles. Several of Cardin’s sensually contoured cabinets are given pride of place, and Renée explains they all have names like ‘Virginity’ and ‘Maternity.’
Stroking the tiny drawer handles on one creation, she asks, “Do you know what these are? Nipples!”
Not everyone in France is so enamoured of Cardin’s all-encompassing design vision, however. From Paris, I hop on the TGV train south to sunny Provence, where since 2001 he has been taking over an entire small village called Lacoste, the 18th century home of aristocratic libertine the Marquis de Sade. His dream has been to turn it into a ‘St Tropez of the arts’.
After renovating the sinister-looking medieval Château Sade, Cardin snapped up some 40 buildings in the quaint little village, turning them into art galleries, cafes, guesthouses and apartments – to the horror of the crustier villagers.
“The man is a megalomaniac!” complains Jacques Trophemius, a wiry farmer in his fifties. “How many houses does he need?”
I stay in one mansion-turned-guesthouse named after the Marquis de Sade. Each room offers a different colour theme – vibrant orange, purple, green – and is furnished, of course, with Cardin originals. (Even the sinks, shower taps and lavatories bear the tell-tale PC signature).
By night, I attend Cardin’s annual Lacoste art festival on the Sade estate. The Marquis’ old quarry has been converted into a spectacular amphitheatre for Cardin-commissioned operas and plays. Giant blocks of hewn stone flank the entrance like an Egyptian temple; inside, models in sheath dresses serve Maxim’s champagne to coiffed audiences from the Riviera.
Obviously, Cardin isn’t daunted by the approach of his 90th birthday. In fact, his last act is shaping up to be wildly ambitious – even pharaonic.
Back in Paris, he presents me with a lavish prospectus for the ultimate expression of his vision – a 300m skyscraper he has designed called the Palais Lumière, the Light Palace, to be built outside his birthplace, Venice.
The gleaming, futuristic creation appears more in the style of Dubai than Italy: its triple glass towers will be linked by six giant discs and contain 1700 apartments, 60 elevators, boutiques, hanging gardens and a helicopter landing pad. Every minute detail of the interior design will be his. Even the people in the drawings are wearing futuristic Cardin clothes from the 1970s.
“It looks like science fiction,” I remark.
“No!” he laughs. “It’s reality!”
Funding and construction dates are vague, but these are minor considerations. Even pushing 90, Cardin’s gaze is fixed on the future.
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