Pierre Cardin (1922–2020)

December 29, 2020

Pierre Cardin, the French-Italian fashion designer whose futuristic clothes shaped the mod aesthetic of the 1960s and influenced generations of designers, died today at the age of ninety-eight in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. His death was reported by the French Academy of Fine Arts.

Known for his sleek, architectural designs worn by celebrities from Jackie Kennedy to the Beatles, Cardin was also an astute businessman, bringing to the general public via mass production designs typically reserved for the rarefied world of haute couture, and licensing his name to products from perfume to pickles, alarm clocks to Android tablets. Unlike many of his peers, he oversaw his business for the span of his entire career, refusing overtures from corporations and individuals alike. “I live on me,” he bragged, noting that, thanks to his licenses, he could “dress Cardin, eat Cardin, dwell Cardin, sleep Cardin, and travel Cardin!”

Born Pietro Cardin in Italy in 1922, Cardin was a teenager living in France when he changed his name to Pierre. Beginning his career as a local tailor’s apprentice, he went to work for Jeanne Pacquin, Elsa Schiaparelli, and then, in 1946, for the fledgling Christian Dior, where, as head of the tailoring department, he contributed to the development of the New Look for which Dior would become famous.

In 1950, he established the House of Cardin, which quickly became known for its geometric cutouts and bold, ballooning profiles. In 1959, he created his first ready-to-wear collection and was summarily kicked out of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne (the organization eventually let him back in, after many of its members followed his lead). The following year, he branched out into men’s ready-to-wear, and over the ensuing decade changed the shape of menswear, offering a slim profile that would come to define the look of the decade, as did his womenswear, streamlined space-age dresses, and miniskirts that reflected his interest in space travel and minimalism.

Over the next fifty years, Cardin expanded his empire, allowing his designs to be mass-produced in China and then in the Soviet Union, the latter sold in Cardin boutiques in Moscow. His licensing ventures encompassed luxe auto interiors, modular desks, and convertible couches, as well as less exalted objects like cigarettes and cassette tapes. In 1981, he purchased the fabled Paris restaurant Maxim’s and promptly licensed that brand as well. He designed for dance troupes and rockers, and staged avant-garde events at his L’Espace Cardin, a repurposed nightclub on the Champs-Élysées. Later years saw him undimmed and his work coming to be reappraised and appreciated: In 2014 he established a Paris institution dedicated to his work, the Past-Present-Future Museum, and in 2017 he opened a new Paris boutique featuring his new designs meant to be worn by the city’s bright young things. That same year, an exhibition of his oeuvre at the posh Breakers mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, drew more than one hundred thousand visitors.

In 2019 he was honored with a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. “In fashion, ‘democratize’ is synonymous with ‘capitalize,’” summed up Jennifer Krasinski, reviewing the show for Artforum, “and Cardin did both with aplomb.”