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Fashion archive: There’s more to Pierre Cardin than collarless jackets

We owe to Pierre Cardin the collarless jacket for men, the signed scarf worn by 22-year-olds to foment chagrin in bus queues, a lot of flowing casual gear to set against the heavy tailored stuff of the early sixties, and a scent which an olfactory friend of mine says she wouldn’t put on a dog’s back.

His fashion house, which began to pump out the creations in 1950, when he was 23, gushes on, though these days he’s so all-fired busy in a dozen areas that he confines himself to knocking out a few exquisite sketches, which are picked as seminal shots by 18 designers. Then 300 minions rush about with needle and thread.

That’s not the half of it. Oh dear, no. It’s not a tithe of it. Cardin has his fingers in more pies than a Cornish pasty champion. Even if you say you believe him, he brings out his albums, scrapbooks, and files of press cuttings to prove it. They are his music. He travels everywhere, from Chad to Kamchatka with them. No wonder that much of the time he talks like Roget’s Thesaurus.

Take furniture, a very recent gambit, in overdrive since October last. Factories everywhere ecstatic. Germany, France, Holland, Italy… And the press coverage, never was anything like it! All the great papers: Le Monde, Le Point, L’Aurore, Le Figaro, rare and almost holy event, double spread in the Chagall Vogue issue, America, Germany, Le Quotidien de Paris, L’Egoiste, pages and pages in L’Oeil…

Pierre Cardin’s 50-year retrospective, Florence, 2003. Photograph: STR/EPA

The rifling becomes a fusillade. Steady there! What, actually, is this furniture? Oh, evolution, progress, development, what else? Eighteenth-century contemporary. Tubular rococo. Look, a mad radio set. Look, a rocking chair with chrome horns like an ibex. A commode with a mirror inside. And, ah yes, rubber sofas like beds of fungi. Lamps, chests of drawers with paintings within. Functional sculptures, he says. Another world altogether.

He breaks off at this point, oh zut alors, on finding that he has broken his spectacle frames on the plane over.

He recovers nobly to give the Maxim’s merchandising a plug. In three luxuriant hours of parley with the old folks at Maxim’s he brought home to them the possibilities, beauties, and options of being Cardinised, and with simple faith they offered him a la carte blanche to purvey their name, saving only 50 percent of the takings for themselves. But, hold on, what actually are the products? Oh, sugar, salt, pepper, vinegar, champagne, jam, fruit, wines, mustard, caviar… 550 in all, chock a block with joie de vivre.

Let’s take five, and after the break consider his life in art, the cinema, the theatre, patronage of painting, sculpture, dance, events… Merely dressing men, women, and children was nothing like enough.

Pierre Cardin is Italian born, of elderly parents. They were solidly advantaged country people in southern France, with lines in transport, wines, and agricultural produce, all of it hammered to fragments by the Germans. Hunting partridge, pigsticking, country sports of all kinds, never interested him. He thought he might be an actor, but although he once played opposite Jeanne Moreau in Brazil in a film of his own production, it was one ambition he never fulfilled.

At 17, an autodidact, he took off for Paris from Vichy and sweated out the Occupation. He has memories of long walks through the night to clandestine dances, where the boogie-woogie reigned. The important break came when after the war he was working for Paquin and Cocteau noticed his work and hired him to dress La Belle et la Bête, Orphée, and so forth.

Dressing Death and Euridyce and the sinister motorbike hellions was smooth enough, but a crisis came when he costumed Jean Marais in white. The cameras wouldn’t take it and he had to redo him at speed in a lovely pink. He thereafter worked with huge success for many others, Max Ophuls, Lanoir… everybody. Among the greatest of his clothes horses, easiest to dress was Jeanne Moreau, beautiful, clever, the complete woman, head and heart, a passage in his life, still a close friend – useless, he says, to break the chains.

Jeanne Moreau and Pierre Cardin on their yacht, June 1962. Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Success came to him so young that he thought it quite normal. He had a commercial head, but not a commercial heart. To avoid boredom, he rotated the arts as farmers do their crops. In 1970 he brought them all together, and became himself the inside man, when he built his arts centre, L’Espace Pierre Cardin, on the site of the old Ambassadeurs by the Elysées. It was, he says, so expensive as not to be worth talking about.

He feels, however, that it is worth pointing out that it was the first, he was the pioneer, none came before him, though several after. During the seventies he has brought to its theatre (550 seats) the young, the new, and the undiscovered, and also the famous, the celebrated, and the established. There is a small cinema for his private viewing, and the long list of contemporary musicians he has introduced to the public begins with Globokar, Ton-That Tiet, and Nguyen Thien Dao.

Nurses’ uniforms designed by Pierre Cardin at the London Nursing Exhibition, 1970. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

It has been the site for artists’ exhibitions, fashion shows, auctions of paintings (Cardin himself is a collector only of old stones from archaeological digs and has few canvases), and at other times sales of wine, numismatical finds, ceramics, and joie de vivre in the shape of cushions, inflatable boats, and children’s games, to name but a smidgen. Le patron, and in fact truly a patron, works at a triangular desk inverted on its apex in an office he calls his seminar.

Among so many foreign ballet and theatre companies invited to L’Espace, two he has made his own. He sponsors them, gives them a three-year contract, half the year to meditate, improvise, and recreate themselves and the other half he travels with them inspiring enthusiasm. And they reward him by filling his albums: look, the New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Times again, L’Express, New York Times again, oh and again…

One is the Japanese group of Ondeko-Za drummers. Very pure, he says, all between 25 and 28, discipline of monks, never make love, run 20 kilometres a day, not everybody’s formula perhaps, but very good for drumming. They weren’t known in Japan, until he Cardinised them.

And now here in London he is presenting his American Pilobolus group of dancers at Sadler’s Wells. Very intelligent, all graduates, different from any dancers he has ever seen (and here he recites a score or so great dancers’ names), and in sum they are not like Fonteyn, or maybe Balanchine, or maybe Jerome-Robbins or Blascard… He saw them first at Nancy, and immediately felt he had to take them round the world, including America, where they were not previously known, but where they put the name of Cardin in the night sky over Broadway.

His great aim, he says, is to make the name Cardin known worldwide. He knows he is known in Yugoslavia, Venezuela, Germany, Belgium, Bolivia, Malaysia, Italy… 57 countries in all. He’s declined several times to write his autobiography, though the thought of 57 markets is a strong argument. Perhaps his next venture might be a chain of good stone hotels, that will survive all this rotten cement? Yes, he says, in Japan where he is very popular it has been mooted. It may happen, but he won’t have it called Cardin’s. It must be Maxim’s, Tokyo.

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