Pierre Cardin: Fashion’s Space Age Master
When asked to conjure up how they imagine the future of fashion to look, people reliably cite a handful of stylistic themes: sleek bodysuits, architectural details that both modify and exaggerate the human form, and designs free of centuries-old ideas about sex and gender roles. It’s an admirable list, but one which surprisingly (and ironically) draws its framework from the past. If there is one person responsible for constructing the public’s collective idea of tomorrow it is Pierre Cardin, and a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum about his life and work––entitled Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion––examines his profound, world-shaking legacy.
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Born in France in 1922, Cardin came of age in Vichy where he took up tailoring as a teenager while volunteering with the Red Cross during World War II. Upon its conclusion, he made his way to Paris where he honed his hands-on skills at Maison Paquin and, briefly, Elsa Schiaparelli before taking a job at Christian Dior in 1947––the landmark year which launched the house’s iconic New Look. Cardin founded his eponymous label only three years later where his love of tailoring shone through and he produced architectural suits in a crisp Mid-Century mode that attracted everyone from Lauren Bacall to Jacqueline Kennedy. Always exhibiting a rebellious streak, Cardin was amongst the first couturiers to execute a ready-to-wear line in 1958. It was a move so radical for the time that it got him temporarily expelled from the Chambre Syndical de la Haute Couture, couture’s official ruling body. But it is precisely this period––from the tail end of the 50s through the 60s––that Cardin began to create the clothes that are revered today.
Many of Cardin’s early designs under his own name bear a resemblance to the restraint and architectural power of contemporary Cristóbal Balenciaga’s own sublime suiting. Cardin’s patternmaking abilities were so strong, in fact, that he was commissioned by Tokyo’s Bunko Fukuoso Gakuin fashion college to teach three-dimensional cutting. It was there he taught future fashion superstars Hanae Mori and Kenzo Takada who would bring their own Japanese aesthetic to transform Parisian fashion years later, laying the groundwork for people such as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto after them. But as the Space Age intensified, Cardin responded to the NASA technology and engineering that was so prominently displayed as the United States and other nations vied for a series of firsts in outer space.
Bright shades of cobalt blue, sunshine yellow, crimson and leaf green began to permeate his collections and he started exploring the use of plastics, Plexiglass and vinyl in his work. This experimentation was solidified in 1964 with the release of his Cosmocorps collection, which was revolutionary not only for the garments but for its approach to what the exhibition rightly terms ‘gender-released’ dressing. Cardin produced looks with models clad in knit body stockings that acted as a genderless foundation garment upon which everything, from bibs to aprons to boots to jewelry, could be slipped over. It was a form of modular dressing that predated the mix-and-match attitude contemporary society associates with jeans and T-shirts.
Clothes aside, Cardin also established a business strategy that was unprecedented. Though American designers like Calvin Klein became some of its most famous proponents, the licensing model so often employed by fashion today was set in motion when Cardin allowed the use of his logo and logotype on products he himself did not design in the 1960s. His catalog of licenses eventually expanded to include more than 850 deals active in over 110 boutiques around the world–every logo acting as a small form of free advertising to build the brand. Rather than simply cashing in, Cardin used the steady income provided by this side business to bolster his couture work resulting in things like Cardine: a synthetic fabric developed by Dynel over a three year period which Cardin soon made into 3-D molded dresses.
"If there is one person responsible for constructing the public’s collective idea of tomorrow, it is Pierre Cardin..."
Still actively designing at 97 years-old, Pierre Cardin is one of France’s most successful businessmen whose philosophy underpins how fashion and the world thinks about the future. Some of his work seems particularly dated, but the ideas and intentions behind every piece remain as fresh as ever. Cardin once predicted, “In 2069, we will all walk on the moon or Mars wearing my ‘Cosmocorps’ ensembles. Women will wear Plexiglass cloche hats and tube clothing, men will wear elliptical pants and kinetic tunics.” He just might be right.