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PARIS — Pierre Cardin, fashion’s great iconoclast, is also a bundle of paradoxes.

He’s embarked on a one-man crusade to make couture more exclusive in the same month that he signed another contract to distribute his fragrances in a French hypermarket chain (see related story, page 8).

He’s banned all photographers and camera crews from his couture runway show on Monday, but finished last year by mounting a ready-to-wear collection before 5,000 people in an outlet of Carrefour, the French equivalent of Wal-Mart.

Cardin, whose name has been plastered over uncounted products with some 840 licenses, sees nothing inconsistent in all of this.

That Cardin would be showing couture at all this season is a surprise to many. Following the death of Andre Oliver, his longtime couture collaborator, last November, the betting in the fashion world here was that Cardin would bow gracefully out of couture. Pierre, however, says he’s firmly committed to this metier.

“I’m continuing with couture because it’s the true spirit and image of the house of Cardin. It’s the most creative part of fashion, and it’s a sheer joy to work with wonderful fabrics,” Cardin says. “Let’s face it, couture is high art, like a Bugatti or a splendid work of architecture.

“Clearly, it’s impossible to replace Andre,” he sighs. “He was an enormous talent, but less…practical than me. Andre lived in a special sphere with the very top people, the VIPs. He just thought of his great friends, like Mme. Pompidou or Mme. Chirac, whom he loved dearly, while I lived in the real world.

“He was capable of creating great fashion, but I could also make practical pret-a-porter for everyday life. He had great imagination, but someone had to bring in the cash,” he adds.

Certainly Oliver and Cardin had a distinguished list of clients. Among the key customers named by the house: Estee Lauder, Marjorie Fischer, Josie Natori, Mica Ertegun, Grace Dudley, Amalia Lacrozede Fortabat, Philippine de Rothschild, Firyal of Jordan, Betty Lagardere and Lilianne Bettencourt.

But how does Cardin square his mass-market retailing with placing his couture virtually off-limits to the public? Access to his couture runway show is restricted to just 180 people, plus 10 journalists.

Cardin’s restrictions seem certain to ruffle more than a few feathers, especially at American Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, whose requests for invitations have been firmly turned down.

“Quite frankly, my licensees reproached me for letting so many photographers in. They said my designs were on the market months before they had a chance to make anything,” he shrugs. Outspoken as he is on most subjects, Pierre is coy about what he plans to put in his couture collection this season. “It will be le style Cardin. I don’t follow any others. I’ve always hewed to my own path, and I don’t intend to change now,” he says.

Pressed about what might show up on his runway, he only replies: “There are still plenty of occasions to wear couture — great balls and the like. These things require the right clothes.”

Pierre is far more interested in speaking about the recent aborted project to telecast the couture collections live via satellite to the U.S., and he’s proud that he and Chanel both rejected the plan from the beginning.

“The same day that [Chambre Syndicale president Jacques] Mouclier wrote me about this absurd idea, I replied by writing NO in big letters on the request. It was a monumental error,” he scoffs.

Ironically, Cardin’s decision to show his men’s rtw to the general public in the early Sixties was one of the reasons he was evicted from the Chambre Syndicale then.

“Look, you can’t keep showing couture; its secret is its very rarity. If every grain of sand on a beach was a diamond, then who’d want diamonds anymore?” he argues. Although he is 71, Cardin still keeps a grueling schedule. He goes around the world twice a year, inspecting his boutiques, double-checking the quality of licensed products, meeting the local press, signing new deals.

Last November, for example, he completed a nine-nation tour of Asia — during which he mounted runway shows in ten cities — in just three weeks.

“History moves in waves, and right now it’s flowing to the East. When you visit China and Vietnam, you just know that within a few years they will dominate world textiles. Their businessmen have incredible drive, and their workers really work and don’t cost much,” he says. In Indonesia, after tea in the presidential palace with the president’s wife, Siti Suharto, Cardin made headlines worldwide by his public demand that the Indonesian government crack down on a local businessman who had registered the name “Pierre Cardin” as his own trademark and produced fake Cardin goods.

“I went to see the Minister of Justice in Jakarta and explained my position. He was fully on my side and promised he would stop this nonsense. How dare someone just use my name!” he said.

“Of course, I’ve an easy entree these days. As a UNESCO ambassador and Academician, access isn’t a problem,” points out Pierre.

Fifteen months ago, Cardin became the first designer to be inducted into the Academie Francaise, and since then, he never misses a Wednesday afternoon meeting of the “Immortals,” as members of that select body are known. “I’m very proud of being the first fashion designer to enter those hallowed halls. And you’ve no idea how much there is to take care of,” says Pierre.

But when he’s not communing with other distinguished Academicians, it’s deals, deals, deals for Cardin.

Last fall, for example, he signed a woman’s shoe license in Germany, launched his women’s rtw in Poland, opened up boutiques in Riga and Lvov and added a second children’s store in China.

“I’m not a kid anymore, but why would I want to stop work? What would I do all day, get ready to go to cocktail parties? I’ve never gone to cocktail parties and never will,” he insists. “I don’t have any regrets. I’ve always done what I wanted. When I thought I should do something, I just went ahead and did it. How many other people can you say that about?

“How many people are free like me? Libre! Libre!” shouts Pierre Cardin.