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PARIS — Pierre Cardin celebrated his 30th anniversary as owner of Maxim’s — and the release of a coffee-table book showcasing its storied history — with a black-tie dinner at the famed Paris restaurant.
The evening last week felt like a trip back in time, as Lee Radziwill, who is pictured in the book in a vintage photo alongside Fiat magnate Gianni Agnelli, sat at Cardin’s table with her escort, designer Gilles Dufour, and Princess Barbara of Yugoslavia.
The Space Age couturier, age 88, likes to call himself the oldest patron of the Art Nouveau landmark, which has hosted everyone from Aristotle Onassis to Andy Warhol. Cardin recalls first dining there with actress Elvira Popescu, for whom he designed costumes for a theater production in the early Fifties.
“I had never eaten caviar. It was as if you had forced me to eat eyes or something!” he said with a laugh. “I thought it was really horrid, though I’ve changed my mind since. Now, I sell it, which just goes to show you.”
Indeed, caviar is one of an estimated 800 licensed products sold under the Maxim’s brand, alongside foie gras, Champagne and chocolate. Cardin has also exported the restaurant’s concept abroad, starting with China, where the first overseas branch opened in Beijing in 1982.
The designer originally took over the famous Rue Royale restaurant to prevent it from falling into foreign hands, though it is now on the block, along with the rest of his business interests. Cardin says times have changed since the heyday of the international jet set.
“The whole world went to Maxim’s: all the kings, Edward VII, the Russian czars. But that was then. It was a privilege, in reality. Ordinary people were full of admiration for these people. Nowadays, they really don’t care,” he said. “Things have evolved. For good or for bad is not for me to say.”
The changing faces of Maxim’s patrons are recorded in the lavishly illustrated book, “Maxim’s: Mirror of Parisian Life,” which was written by Cardin’s longtime collaborator, Jean-Pascal Hesse, and is to be published by Assouline on June 30.
“Everyone knows Maxim’s. It’s like the Eiffel Tower,” said Hesse, a historian who combed through the restaurant’s archives.
The tome features stills from films like “Gigi” and the more recent Stephen Frears-directed “Chéri,” in addition to vintage documents and photographs of celebrities ranging from Maria Callas to Barbra Streisand.
“It was a place where people used to come for an atmosphere, an ambience. You didn’t come to Maxim’s for the food. The former owner put it rather nicely when he said that at Maxim’s, the stars were in the dining room, not on your plate,” said Hesse, referring to the Michelin star ratings prized by France’s top restaurateurs.
Though in recent years it has attracted mainly well-heeled tourists, the venue also became popular with the fashion crowd for club nights, including the now-defunct monthly Club Sandwich parties, which will be replaced in the fall by a new concept called Polka Dot. In fact, after her runway debut for Mugler last March, Lady Gaga headed straight there to celebrate.
Cardin said that, in light of his age, he would like to hand over his empire to new owners soon, and spinning off Maxim’s is out of the question. His minimum asking price remains one billion euros, or $1.4 billion at current exchange, despite criticism that this is too steep for a business consisting mainly of licenses.
“I field offers every single day,” he noted. “Let’s do the math briefly. There are some 100 clothing products for men, women and children. There are roughly 100 countries. On average, I’m asking for one million euros [$1.4 million] per product and per country. That’s 10 billion euros. Wouldn’t you give one million euros to own the license for Pierre Cardin suits, for example? It’s nothing.”
Currently he is leaning in favor of a plan by British-based investors to list the company on the stock exchange and keep him on as chief executive officer. But the famously mercurial designer could still change his mind.
“A decision is fairly imminent. I want to do it this year,” he insisted. “I am almost 89, you know. I might be alert for another two, three years, but after that, I’ll be a little bit senile.”