Pierre Cardin, the French fashion designer famed for 1960s-era avant-garde and Space Age looks, who pioneered fashion ready-to-wear and the fashion licensing system that made him rich but diminished his brand’s reputation, has died. He was 98.
His death was announced by French Academy of Fine Arts on Tuesday. The academy did not give a cause of death or say where or when he died.
Born Pietro Cardin in 1922 to French parents in their vacation home in San Biagio di Callalta near Venice, Cardin’s family left Italy two years later to escape fascism and moved back to Sainte-Etienne in central France, where Pierre grew up.
From an early age, he was interested in dressmaking, starting work at age 14 as an apprentice even though his father wanted him to become an architect. He moved to Paris in 1945, where he studied architecture and worked with the fashion houses of Paquin and Elsa Schiaparelli.
After the war, Christian Dior’s atelier hired him. He was put in charge of creating Dior’s famous 1947 New Look collection, which re-emphasized femininity in women’s apparel after the period when women took on male roles and jobs during the war.
He founded his own house in 1950, launching his career by designing costumes and masks for the theater and for the frequent masquerade balls in Paris and in Venice. After starting his haute couture business in 1953, his “bubble dresses” introduced in 1954 were an enormous success.
According to his website, Cardin was the first couturier to look to the east for potential fashion markets. He went to Japan for the first time in 1957; two decades later, he went to China to begin a long collaboration with that market. And in 1991, he staged a fashion show in Red Square in Moscow before 200,000 people, a first in Russian history.
He also was the first couturier to present a ready-to-wear collection for women, in 1959 at a Paris department store, which so unnerved the governing body of the French fashion industry that it briefly expelled him. But Cardin sought to make fashion more accessible to more women and he saw ready-to-wear as an idea ready to soar. Starting in earnest in the early 1960s, Cardin produced the designs that women didn’t know they wanted until they saw them.
He was fascinated by geometric shapes and motifs as well as unisex designs. Beginning in the 1970s, he launched the “mod chic” style, geometrically inspired silhouettes that ignored the female form. His Space Age looks were inspired in part by his interest in space exploration; he even visited NASA to try on the spacesuit worn by Buzz Aldrin, the second astronaut to walk on the moon. Later in the 1970s, he designed the interior and exterior of jet aircraft and the uniforms of flight attendants.
In 1974, he was the first couturier to appear on Time magazine’s cover. By the 1980s, he was winning awards such as the Gold Thimble of French Haute-Couture, and is made a Knight of the Legion of Honour. In 1992, he takes a seat in the Academy of Fine Arts at the French Institute.
He launched a menswear line, and perfumes for both men and women. He designed costumes for Hollywood and for ballet, he met the pope and Nelson Mandela, and he bought the famous restaurant Maxim’s in Paris. He also bought a palazzo in Venice; the Marquis de Sade’s castle in Lacoste, France, where he staged an annual music festival, and an old theater in Paris that he turned into a cultural center to promote new artists, theater ensembles and musicians.
But Cardin may be best remembered for his business strategy of licensing his name to a dizzying array of products, starting first with fashion, perfume and cosmetics. Those items were in keeping with an haute-couture brand but starting in the 1980s, the signature of Pierre Cardin appeared on up to 1,000 other items, most of them much cheaper, such as boxer shorts and baseball caps, cigarettes, pencil holders and pens, key chains and the like.
This approach had the effect of diluting the brand’s cachet but it made Cardin a great deal of money. In a 1986 Women’s Wear Daily article, he was designated “probably Europe’s wealthiest designer,” with an estimated total sales of more than $1 billion (in 1986) and some 160,000 employees around the world. By 1995, he was known derisively as “the licensing king,” a designer who would sign his name to toilet paper for the right price.
In 1992, the late Pierre Berge, then chairman of Yves Saint Laurent, told Women’s Wear Daily that Cardin was the “worst example” of indiscriminate licensing.
“You can’t continue just sticking your name on a product and expecting people to buy it,” he said. “The strategy of ‘I’ll give you my name if you’ll give me your money’ is simply not legitimate.”
In 2011, Cardin attempted to sell his business and failed. He valued it at over $1 billion when it may have been worth only one-fifth of that, according to the Wall Street Journal. In an interview, Cardin said then he wanted to sell because he wanted the business to continue and he anticipated not being around in a “a few years.”
He also defended his zeal for licensing: “I don’t want to end up like Balenciaga and die without a nickel – then, 20 years after I’m dead, see others make a fortune from my name.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pierre Cardin dead; famed French fashion designer was 98