PARIS — Call him the Muhammad Ali of fashion.
His speech is peppered with references to his successes, in particular his membership of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, part of the prestigious Institut de France, which last year hosted a fashion show marking the 70th anniversary of his house — an event that Cardin characterized as the biggest honor of his career.
Having celebrated his 95th birthday in July, he shows no sign of slowing down. This fall saw the publication of a 260-page monograph by Assouline titled simply “Pierre Cardin.” The designer was mobbed during Paris Fashion Week at the signing for the hefty coffee-table book, which retails for $195.
Weeks later, he was back in front of the cameras for the inauguration of a boutique of clothing geared toward a young crowd. The Boutique Bleue, named after its turquoise-colored walls, sits on Rue Royale next to Maxim’s, the famed restaurant he bought in 1981.
Next up is an exhibition of Cardin’s furniture designs from the Seventies, scheduled to be held at Sotheby’s in Paris between Jan. 17 and 24.
On a recent visit to his headquarters opposite the presidential palace here, Cardin took WWD on a tour of his couture workshop, which includes narrow rooms stocked with an astonishing 30 tons of fabric.
In typically hyperactive fashion, he broke off mid-conversation to dash off a sketch of the Bar jacket, the iconic style designed by Christian Dior in 1947, which Cardin constructed as an early member of the famed designer’s studio.
Despite suffering from back pain, Cardin stood at length in front of a bookcase in his office, showing off mementos ranging from his perfumes — including the phallic-shaped bottle for his 1972 fragrance Pour Monsieur — and a head shot from his short-lived acting career.
In a wide-ranging interview, the designer discussed his rivalry with Yves Saint Laurent, the death of the tie, and being as famous as Coca-Cola:
WWD: When you look at the images in this book, which part of your career path makes you the proudest?
Pierre Cardin: Listen, I’m not surprised because they are my creations, but it strikes me that even though people thought I was ridiculous at the time — at Saint Laurent, incidentally — I am the only one who is still relevant, whereas the others are outmoded. What is the Saint Laurent style? There is no style. There is a style at Courrèges, there is a style at Chanel, there is a style at Cardin. What is the style at Saint Laurent? An elegant woman. An elegant woman is not a style, it’s a behavior. It’s not that I want to say anything about Saint Laurent, or about Dior, or about my peers, but I mean, when you think of Courrèges, for example, you picture Courrèges, don’t you? That’s talent. The same is true of art. You see a great painter, you recognize him through his painting, a musician through his music. You can recognize it without seeing the name and without knowing who it is. That’s talent.
WWD: And when you look at the Assouline monograph, do you see that coherence in your own work?
P.C.: That’s what I’m told, at any rate. The only inconvenience of the book is that it’s too heavy.
WWD: In his introduction, your communications director Jean-Pascal Hesse says your name is among the eight most recognizable worldwide, alongside Mercedes and Coca-Cola.
P.C.: That’s because at the beginning of my career, when everyone was criticizing me, I wanted to create, first and foremost, but I also wanted to be known worldwide by traveling the planet. Forty years ago, I was already traveling in Asia, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Korea. I was going to the United States, everywhere. I was able to commercialize my name through my presence, and to become famous, because I believed that fashion was no longer for the privileged few. Women were working, which was not the case before. Balls and cocktails no longer existed. It was important therefore to keep in step with contemporary lifestyles. That’s what I did and I made a success of it.
WWD: You coined the idea of luxury for the masses.
WWD: Was it always important for you to succeed on a huge scale, and not just with an elite group of people?
P.C.: Of course, I wanted to dress the whole world, but through creation, rather than privilege. In other words, by creating, I wanted others to imitate me. That is what I managed to do, even though I was strongly criticized at first, as you know. People said, “In three years, nobody will be talking about Pierre Cardin anymore.” Well, I am the only one people are still talking about, and that’s been true for a while.
WWD: Was your fantasy to brand every item in the house — the ashtray, the table, the clothes?
P.C: I think it’s so difficult to have a brand, and since I had the talent and the possibility to do everything — why not? If you can sing and you don’t sing, what’s the use of being able to sing? I understood that I had to take advantage of my talent and my worth and my skills and if I failed, then I failed. As it happens, I succeeded. When I did the shoes, when I did the handbags, people criticized me so much.
Everyone criticized me. And now, everyone has copied me.
WWD: So you didn’t want to set any limits to your creativity?
P.C.: No. As I said, it’s so difficult to have a brand and a name. I’m lucky enough to have that, why not make use of it? There are so many people who would like to have a product, and they can’t do it. I had everything — might as well take advantage of it.
That was my opinion.
WWD: That kind of thinking also reflects a conquering mentality.
P.C.: Yes, because the big Paris houses were very critical of me. But at the end of the day, they all copied my idea.
WWD: It sounds like you’re still hurt by that.
P.C.: I thought it was quite unfair because they ended up following my lead. You know, selling peanuts is not all that unpleasant. Going into the food segment, like I did, being in theater, producing films: I have been successful at everything in my career. It’s difficult enough being good at one thing. I was good at everything: my private life, my work, my creations. So that annoys people. I get it.
WWD: If you had to do it over again, is there anything you would do differently?
P.C.: No, I would do it all over again.
WWD: So no regrets?
P.C.: No regrets — nothing. No really, I’m so happy with what I do, and the risks that I’ve taken, because I had to take risks to achieve everything I did.
WWD: You’ve met absolutely everyone who is anyone in the process.
P.C.: Mrs. Gandhi, Fidel Castro — I’ve met the whole world.
WWD: Which famous person impressed you most?
P.C.: Indira Gandhi quite impressed me.
She had a commanding presence. She had a piercing gaze, and she was just a major figure. Fidel Castro was also very impressive. I have met all the greats. I had lunch with him twice one-on-one, and I stayed at Fidel Castro’s house. And I also visited Mrs. Gandhi at home. She never had anyone over, not even the French ambassador.
You know, I must be the only person in the world who sat on the seat that first went to the moon and walked in the astronaut’s suit.
WWD: I heard you bribed a security guard to let you try on Neil Armstrong’s space suit. Is that true?
P.C.: Yes, absolutely. I gave him $50. I bribed him, and I got in. It was lunchtime and we were visiting NASA. I say to the security guard, “Look, sir, my greatest happiness in life would be to try on that suit.” He told me it was impossible. He was about to put it in a transparent glass case. I said, “Listen, be a pal.” He did me a huge kindness and I gave him a $50 bill. He took my picture. That’s how come I have that photograph.
WWD: Do you think you could have your career over again if you were starting out today?
P.C.: I don’t think so, you know, because I’m hard working and I am neither arrogant nor pretentious. I remained human, hardworking, close to people, and I don’t have a big head just because I’m Pierre Cardin. After all, I am a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Which other couturier is a member of the Académie? None. I am the only one.
I was an ambassador for UNESCO. I really have held every title.
I have tried my hand at everything. I have risked my career in every field. I wanted to be successful at everything. I have succeeded. On Jan. 16, Sotheby’s is honoring me for my furniture designs.
WWD: It goes to show once again that you can be successful in a domain unrelated to fashion.
P.C.: I was very successful, not just successful. And above all, respected. I get a lot of respect from people who come to see me, who ask me, “But how did you manage in your lifetime to have so many extensions, and quality, and creativity?”
WWD: Do you have any more spectacular fashion shows planned, like the one you staged in China last year?
P.C.: You know, I have staged shows in magical places. I have a project for a Pierre Cardin Academy. It’s a building that will represent all of fashion, a university. It’s interesting, isn’t it?
WWD: So it’s a learning institution?
P.C.: Yes, a cultural institution.
WWD: Where would you like to build it?
P.C.: Either in Lacoste [the village in the south of France where he owns a castle and several dozen properties] or in Paris. Now all I need is the permits.
WWD: What motivated this project?
P.C.: Because I need to leave a trace of culture and of civilization. I have shown all across the world. My creations stand out. Nobody produces designs like that.
WWD: When did you get this idea?
P.C.: I’ve been working on it for a year.
WWD: You also recently opened a new store on Rue Royale. What can you tell me about it?
P.C.: It’s blue, it’s young — it’s Pierre Cardin for Maxim’s.
WWD: Do you regret not becoming a model or actor?
P.C.: I did some modeling for Elle and Paris Match. I was the same size as Jean Marais. I was very slim.
WWD: You were the stand-in for Jean Marais on a movie, weren’t you?
P.C.: Yes. But you know, being a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts is better than being a model.
What I am most proud of is belonging to the Institut de France. No other couturier had ever done this. They welcomed not so much the couturier, but the man. I mean, it’s a big victory for my profession.
WWD: Is culture more important to you than fashion?
P.C.: Originally, I wanted to be an actor. And then my fashion career was going so well that I thought, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
WWD: Does this mean you consider fashion a minor art?
P.C.: No, I didn’t see it as a minor art, since I was successful. You know, when you are young, you dream of being an actor. You delude yourself a little. But I had a bit of talent, since I worked with Jean Cocteau, with Christian Bérard, with Luchino Visconti.
WWD: You also shot a movie with Jeanne Moreau, didn’t you?
P.C.: I had a starring role in it.
I try to do what I want. Either I get it wrong, or I don’t: [I’m] a free man. So obviously there will always be critics. Successful people are unpopular, as you know. People get jealous. But I’m not the jealous type.
WWD: Pierre Bergé passed away recently. How do you feel about the fact that Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé are no longer with us? You had your share of differences with them.
P.C.: They were always jealous of me. I never spoke ill of Saint Laurent and Monsieur Bergé. That’s not my problem. I have better things to think about. But they were always aggressive toward me because I was doing things they were not doing. It annoyed them. And on top of that, I was successful.
WWD: With Hubert de Givenchy and Karl Lagerfeld, you are the last of the great designers of your era.
P.C.: Given my age — I’m a centenarian.
WWD: You’re not quite there yet.
P.C.: No, but because my back hurts, I look more than 100 years old (laughs).
WWD: How did you feel about your 95th birthday in July?
P.C.: I really don’t want to discuss my age. I have to put up with it.
WWD: Do you still work every day?
P.C.: Every day.
WWD: Despite your back pain?
P.C.: I arrived in Paris at the age of 19. I lived at number 82 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in front of the gate to the presidential palace. And now I live in the building next to the couture house. I have lived in this neighborhood all my life.
I’ve had homes in every street, all around the president. You’ve got to admit: what a destiny!
WWD: You like to be close to power.
P.C.: Yes, but without pretension, you know. It’s destiny. It’s destiny. Many people would have liked to do what I did, but they couldn’t. Plus I always chose strategic locations. The Place de la Concorde with Espace Cardin, the Midi region, the Palais Bulles — they are always quality spots. I have managed to steer my life in a particularly exceptional direction without bothering anyone.
WWD: Being financially independent has always been important to you, hasn’t it?
P.C.: I have never had a banker, never.
WWD: Is it because you don’t trust them?
P.C: No, no, no — I respect everyone. But I never needed one.
WWD: You’ve built an empire. Who is going to look after it?
P.C.: I have Rodrigo [Basilicati,] my nephew. He is a brilliant, intelligent, cultivated boy, and an artist above all. He is a professional pianist. He knows a lot about almost everything, really.
WWD: Is he your designated heir?
P.C.: After me, you know, things will be different. But that’s life — to each their turn.
WWD: Pierre Bergé meticulously organized his legacy before he died. I get the feeling that you are not very interested in what happens when you are no longer around. Am I wrong?
P.C.: I have already prepared everything.
WWD: Is it important to you to make sure the Pierre Cardin name and business live on without you?
P.C.: I’m not especially bothered. I won’t be around to see it. Insha’Allah [“God willing” in Arabic.] You know, things go so fast nowadays. I have bases across the world, in Sydney, in Auckland, in Argentina, in Korea, in Russia, in China, in Japan. It will be a while before anyone catches up to me.
WWD: Are you interested in any young designers working today?
P.C.: I don’t really know them. They are brands. Look at Dior, they are changing every six months. It’s a shame. I mean, if Dior could see that! I knew Christian Dior very well, since I was the first hire of the Dior house.
WWD: Have you seen the Dior retrospective at Les Arts Décoratifs?
P.C.: I haven’t seen it.
WWD: How come?
P.C.: I have been feeling tired lately, but I will go see it because it includes the Bonbons, all those dresses. He gave them names.
Monsieur [Bernard] Arnault [chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton] always invites me to the shows. I always go, by the way.
WWD: Do you like what Maria Grazia Chiuri is doing?
P.C.: It’s not my style at all, but to each his own taste.
I know all the Dior dresses. I was there for three years, after all. I was in charge of suits and coats — the Bar [jacket.]
WWD: Dior in January staged a masked ball. I understand this is something you’re into?
P.C.: I was at the Beistegui ball [Cardin designed dozens of costumes for Charlie de Beistegui’s 1951 masked costume ball in Venice, which has been described as “the party of the century.”]
WWD: Would you like there to be more balls in Paris?
P.C.: Yes, as it happens. I’ve actually discussed it with the Chambre Syndicale.
WWD: What format would it take?
P.C.: A costumed ball, perhaps.
WWD: Would you design costumes for it?
P.C.: I’ve done so many, you know.
WWD: Yes, you started out as a theatrical outfitter. Would you like to revive that spirit of extravagance?
P.C.: In my own way, yes. There are others who do it as well as I do. Karl Lagerfeld makes very pretty costumes.
WWD: So the idea is for everyone to take part?
P.C.: Of course. For Paris to live again — to breathe new life into the jewelers, milliners, shoe makers, glove-makers and bag makers.
WWD: When you look at old photos of Maxim’s, it was really all about society figures like Aristotle Onassis, Maria Callas or Jacqueline de Ribes. When did that social scene start to wind down?
P.C.: It started with socialism, which brought unemployment. Instead of creating jobs, they destroyed them. Think about it: I used to make enough ties every year to go around the planet twice. Can you believe it? Now, it’s not even a quarter. How many people are unemployed because of the Communists who scrapped the tie? Weavers, designers, machine operators, transporters, sales representatives. Where is the intelligence in Communism? And what do you gift a man nowadays?
We used to make millions of ties. It used to provide work for all the representatives, all the stores. Anyway, I don’t want to criticize everything, because it annoys me.
WWD: What is your biggest luxury?
P.C.: Oh, me — I don’t need anything. When you have everything, you don’t need anything.
WWD: Are you still trying to sell Maxim’s?
P.C.: You know my age. After all, I have to start thinking a little about who will succeed me, who will buy it. It’s not a problem, but it’s a consideration.
WWD: At the same time, you don’t seem to be in a hurry.
P.C.: No (laughs). As late as possible. Just today, I was offered 2 billion euros for the Maxim’s brand. There is no price tag on Pierre Cardin — the price of desire.
WWD: You always said you wouldn’t sell the Pierre Cardin brand for less than a billion euros.
P.C.: I have upped the price now. I had a realization — I got used to one billion. Since I don’t need it, I tell myself, why not? If there is someone crazy enough, why not?
WWD: So the sky’s the limit.
P.C.: Illimited! Illimited! (laughs).