Oddly enough, Pierre Cardin found himself sitting last week at the same East 57th Street address where he had a New York office and apartment more than 50 years ago.
“The building has changed, now it’s the Four Seasons,” the designer said dryly.
Though it wasn’t his intention, the 54-story modern hotel seemed to be an appropriate setting to get up-to-speed about the latest developments in his towering business. Despite having 900 licenses in his global empire, Cardin showed his shrewd financial sense when a waiter asked if he might like some water. “No, thank you. Your water is too expensive,” he said good-humoredly — more than once.
For the past few years, the 86-year-old Cardin has been equally vocal about his willingness to sell his company, with the asking price now resting at $1.2 billion. Asked about any recent talks, he only became more energized, bolting upright and explaining how most of the interest is from bankers in China and Saudi Arabia “where things are happening, not too much from America,” he said. “I’m selling my business but at the same time it is my name.”
That’s cause for separation anxiety for someone who once said, “I have a name, I have to take advantage of it.”
And so he has. “No one in the world has so many licenses — women’s, children’s, men’s,” he said, looking around the Four Seasons. “Glasses, forks, tables, chairs, lamps, curtains, watches, ties…”
Beyond the apparel, accessories and what some consider to be a garish number of licenses that even includes food products, Cardin has plenty of other business pursuits, including Maxim’s restaurants, hotels, art galleries and four theaters, and this month acquired a Paris auction house. In September, he plans to unveil a new furniture collection during Maison & Objet in Paris. His various enterprises are said to indirectly employ 200,000 people.
“I’m an old man, but I don’t feel like an old man. I want to do something new, I want to continue. I don’t need clothes — I am so rich — to stay in life. For what? I want to improve myself. I do not want to live for eating. Isn’t that what you [are supposed to] expect from life when you are old — dinner parties and only sleeping?”
He is showing no signs of doing so. During a lengthy interview, he rattled off dates, names and detailed directions to specific locations with what seemed like automatic recall.
Presuming a deal is reached with a new owner this year, Cardin intends to devote more time to his theater and art endeavors, which along with extensive travel have been constants throughout his life. As a young man in Paris in 1945, Cardin put his acting aspirations on ice to dabble in costume design for Jean Cocteau and other notables. He has managed to keep a hand in acting and even appeared opposite Jeanne Moreau in the 1975 film “Joanna Francesca.”
These days, he is right at home in Lacoste in the south of France, where he owns what was once the Marquis de Sade’s chateau and has purchased numerous properties, including the local bakery, cafe, hotel and art galleries. The enchanting village with only 400 residents is where he first connected with the Savannah College of Art and Design, which has a satellite campus there, and he has been instrumental in cultivating the artist community in Lacoste. Each summer they team up for tandem art and theatrical festivals.
“Food, fashion, music, art, films, theater — I like everything, you know,” Cardin said.
As part of the events surrounding this summer’s Beijing Olympic Games, Cardin will stage a production of “Marco Polo” at the National Center for the Performing Arts Opera House in collaboration with Marie-Claude Pietragalla and Julien Derouault. The designer was asked by the Chinese government to create something reflective of the French, since he was among “the first to go to China and believe in the country when it was not such an easy thing to do.”
In November, Cardin staged a spectacular outdoor fashion show on a thin, white podium winding through the dunes of the Gobi Desert at Dunhuang.
His upcoming performance will debut Aug. 16 in China and will later tour seven cities in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Russia, where Cardin said he was a pioneer in that part of the world. In fact, he first visited Communist countries decades ago and even met with Fidel Castro on two occasions, “a very interesting, very knowledgeable and very pleasant man, but I don’t like his politics.”
Cardin recalled arranging for a visa to visit Russia in 1963 through the first Russian ambassador in Paris. “I told him, ‘You know I’m not going because I’m a Communist, I’m a capitalist. I don’t want to have any problems.’ He said, ‘You know there are so many Communists around the world that one more or one less doesn’t really matter.'”
The designer said he started traveling at the age of 17 and has never stopped, having visited 120 countries. He has made 52 trips to Japan alone, the first of which occurred in 1957. Since 1991, he has served as peace ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and has met with many prime ministers, presidents and diplomats along the way. “When I talk, I can say what I say because I was there. I like to meet people, to have relations and to have life. I try to make peace between one country and another.”
His duties on each visit also involve hosting flag-raising ceremonies surrounded by 20 children holding each other’s hands. Afterwards, he tries to impress upon them his message of brotherhood. “I tell them, it doesn’t matter if you were born black or white. Everything is different in life. Of course, the trees, the plants, the animals are not the same. But the reason you are in the world is to live together,” he said. “That is my mission.
“Wherever I work, I try to take it for what it is — the life, the work, the country, the people, the climate but without the politics. I try to think of the people themselves. You must try to understand when you go somewhere why the people are poor or old or act a certain way.”
Cardin was more cut-and-dried about American fashion. He said, “It’s more commercial. But who buys the clothes? People. You can dream, of course, but poor people can’t buy those clothes. If you’d like to build your name, whether you are a designer, writer, musician or artist, people have to be able to recognize your style before they see the name. To only have beautiful clothes is not enough,…To copy is not talent, it’s taste.”
As for his own abilities, Cardin said, “For me, my talent made the money, not the money made the name.”
Of course, he can’t consider his current status without glancing back at some of the risks he took in the past. Christian Dior, whom he met through a mutual friend, gave him his big break by telling him he could work for the house that Dior was starting in three months or join him working for Lucien Lelong, opting for the former. A few years later in 1950, Cardin said he passed up the chance to be the new artistic director at Chanel to build its North American business in order to start his own house. “I wanted to be first in my house — not second in someone else’s house. It was a big risk,” he said. “I felt the world would change and maybe ready-to-wear was the best way to go.”
Cardin said he had a hunch that more women, even affluent, beautiful ones would choose to work as a way to be engaged in the world. Of course, that inkling was eventually realized by scores of women including Madame Hervé Alphand, the wife of the French ambassador during the Kennedy administration, who fixed her eyes on finding a job — and even spoke with Cardin about working for him — as soon as she returned from Washington.
“People said, ‘Pierre Cardin, in two years he’s finished.’ And now I am the only one who is still in my own house,” he said.
Despite the galaxy of products and businesses, the father of Space Age fashion views his own accomplishments in a more intangible way. “I’m proud of what I do — to realize a dream, to be independent, to be known by so many people around the world and to have built my freedom myself,” he said. “Life has given me the chance to meet very important people and to build my own life. But you must respect the people.”