PARIS — It’s a little-known fact that Pierre Cardin invented the reverse Mohawk haircut 40 years ago.
“I did it myself, with a clipper,” the 87-year-old designer recounted, gleefully imitating the sound of the shaving tool clearing a strip of hair from the forehead to the nape of the neck.
“The [male model] asked for the equivalent of 300 euros [$410] at the time, saying: ‘Now I can’t get any work, because nobody wants to hire me.’ So I paid him 300 euros.”
It’s a perfect example of the fearlessness that drove Cardin to pioneer Space Age fashion in the Sixties and put his name on everything from cigarette lighters to orthopedic mattresses.
This year, he celebrates the 60th anniversary of his label with a series of events, including a catwalk show planned for Paris Fashion Week in the fall and a book charting creations such as the bubble dress and his signature outfits based on geometric patterns and circles.
Cardin on Monday hosted a signing session at his Paris restaurant Maxim’s for “Pierre Cardin, 60 Years of Innovation,” written by his longtime collaborator, Jean-Pascal Hesse, and published last month by Assouline.
The designer no longer shows on the Paris ready-to-wear schedule, but occasionally stages catwalk displays in spectacular settings, such as the Gobi desert or his bubble-shaped Palais Bulles on the French Riviera. The anniversary fashion show, however, will likely take place at the Espace Cardin theater in the French capital, though he insists it will not be a retrospective.
Cardin is the last postwar couturier still heading his own label, a source of considerable pride to the son of Italian immigrants, who left home at 17, and by 30 had set up his own Paris fashion house.
“I never expected when I started out that I would live to such an advanced age. It’s a pleasant surprise,” he said as he surveyed his office, cluttered with photographs, brochures and clippings.
An indefatigable world traveler, Cardin is known from Anchorage to Ulan Bator thanks to his huge number of licenses: more than 800, including glasses, forks, tables, chairs, lamps, curtains, watches and ties.
Though plastering his name on products as unexpected as sardine tins has diminished the prestige of the Cardin brand, it continues to bring in healthy revenues: the designer is ranked as the 97th wealthiest man in France with an estimated fortune of 310 million euros, or $421 million at current exchange rates, according to a 2009 survey by French business magazine Challenges.
To call Cardin hyperactive would be an understatement. From his headquarters across the road from the French president’s palace in Paris he runs his various empires and plans new buildings, music festivals, art exhibitions, theater performances and, now, a golf course. Even his speech patterns reflect his restless nature. Cardin does not speak as much as fire out words with hardly a pause, giving the impression of someone reciting a text by heart.
“I have the enthusiasm, I have a reason for existing, a passion — I feel useful. I have a goal in life, which is to continue working until the very last moment,” he said in a typical salvo.
The designer could easily take time off to enjoy his various residences, which include Casanova’s former palazzo in Venice and dozens of properties in the southern French village of Lacoste, among which is a chateau formerly inhabited by the Marquis de Sade.
But he is allergic to leisure. “I need to do something. I can’t sit still all day long. Even reading, after an hour…” he trails off.
Among his current projects are a musical about Casanova to be staged on the Piazza San Marco in Venice and a 920-foot skyscraper combining residential and commercial properties, which he hopes to build on an island in the Seine west of Paris.
Cardin periodically considers selling his label — asking price: 1 billion euros, or $1.36 billion — but so far, talks with investors have not come to fruition. “I want it to be 100 percent on my terms,” he said. “I am not selling out of necessity, I am selling because one day I will disappear and I want to have a say in who runs it.”
Cardin started his career at the house of Paquin, where he designed costumes for Jean Cocteau’s film “Beauty and the Beast.” After a brief stint at Schiaparelli, he joined the brand new house of Christian Dior, where he was instrumental in helping to launch the New Look in 1947.
Three years later, he decided to strike out and open his own couture house. Rapidly, however, Cardin decided his future lay not with high society but with the hoi polloi.
He felt society was changing, with women joining the workforce in ever-greater numbers, and decided to offer them something revolutionary: designer clothing off the rack.
The Chambre Syndicale, French fashion’s governing body, expelled Cardin for showing rtw in 1959, but he says he wasn’t worried about being banished from the gilded ranks of couture.
“I was very gifted, you understand, and I was sure of myself, so I thought, if it doesn’t work in haute couture, I will do something else. It wasn’t a problem as far as I was concerned, and I ended up doing well in every field, in fact,” he said.
It was that kind of unwavering self-belief that prompted Cardin to set off in search of new markets at the other end of the world.
In 1957, he traveled to Japan, giving lectures on three-dimensional cutting at Bunka Fashion College. In the Seventies, he became one of the first Western designers to have his clothes manufactured in China.
“When I arrived in China for the first time, I saw disaster, misery, cold, famine, authority, the suppression of freedom — it really was a jail,” he said. “Despite that, I was able to make myself understood, known and beloved.”
Cardin visited another Communist state on a secret mission: Fidel Castro had enquired about the possibility of selling Cuban cigars under the Cardin or Maxim’s name in order to circumvent a U.S. trade embargo.
“There were a lot of diplomatic intrigues, I had to sneak through back corridors,” he recalled. “I decided that I didn’t want to make a habit of it.”
The one place Cardin has yet to visit is the moon, although it is his constant obsession and at the center of almost all his creations. Such is his love of circular shapes that Cardin easily rebuffs critics who have accused him of ignoring the female form in favor of abstract designs. “I work like a sculptor,” he said. “The body moves freely inside the dress and, at the same time, it creates a shape. If you always dress the bust, the hips and the waist, you always get the same dress. All that changes is the fabric. That’s not what fashion is about. I am concerned with aesthetics.”
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