French designer Pierre Cardin dies aged 98

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Cardin, who upended fashion styles in 1960s and 70s with futuristic looks, dies in hospital near Paris

Pierre Cardin and models pose in Paris in 1985.
Pierre Cardin and models pose in Paris in 1985. Photograph: Alexis Duclos/AP
Pierre Cardin and models pose in Paris in 1985. Photograph: Alexis Duclos/AP
Deputy fashion editor

First published on Tue 29 Dec 2020 07.39 EST

The French designer Pierre Cardin, who upended fashion in the 1960s and 70s with his futuristic looks and pioneering approach to merchandise, has died at the age of 98.

His death was announced by France’s Fine Arts Academy on Twitter. Cardin’s family told Agence France-Presse he died in hospital in Neuilly, near Paris.

Cardin was well-known for his bold, space-age designs in the late 1950s. Well-regarded by the Parisian haute couture set, he went on to dress 60s luminaries such as Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and the Beatles, whose radical, collarless jackets – inspired by Cardin and worn on The Ed Sullivan Show – became the new standard for a generation still wearing their father’s suits.

Elizabeth Taylor in a headdress of silver spikes, orchids and lilies chats to designer Cardin, who is wearing what looks like an aluminium gas mask.
Elizabeth Taylor in a headdress of silver spikes, orchids and lilies chats to designer Cardin, who is wearing what looks like an aluminium gas mask. Photograph: Three Lions/Getty Images

But in a career that lasted more than three-quarters of a century, it was Cardin’s canny business sense that elevated him to household name. Licensing and affixing his name – and often just initials – on to everyday items such as pens, clocks, trousers and shoes, and later hotels, perfumes and restaurants, he became a branding pioneer, bringing the inaccessible world of high fashion to the masses and with it, a steady stream of revenue that earned him the unofficial title “the Napoleon of licencers.”

“They said pret-a-porter [ready to wear clothes] will kill your name, and it saved me,” he once said. He sold Pierre Cardin-brand goods in more than 140 countries on five continents.

Pietro Cardin was born near Treviso in Italy in 1922, the youngest of 11 children. His family fled Mussolini’s regime and moved to France when he was a child. Growing up in the French industrial town of Saint Étienne, it was hoped that Cardin would become an architect but his interest lay in fashion.

“Italian by birth, Pierre Cardin never forgot his origins while bringing unconditional love to France,” his family said. It’s thought he learned to be a tailor aged 17 working alongside the Red Cross.

Pierre Cardin and models in his Bubble Palace in Theoule sur mer, France, in October 2008.
Pierre Cardin and models in his Bubble Palace in Theoule sur mer, France, in October 2008. Photograph: Frederic Souloy/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

Moving to Paris, he worked on the set of the film Beauty and the Beast with the poet, artist and director Jean Cocteau in 1947. Cocteau introduced him to Christian Dior, and by 1950 he had established his own label.

He went on to open his own boutique, Eve, on Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré and create his 1954 bubble dress – tight at the waist, loose at the thigh and narrow at the hem, and famously worn by Eva Perón.

By 1959, in a career first for a French designer, he was showing ready-to-wear for women at the department store Printemps, shocking Paris’s fashion establishment, which had thus far managed to keep the everyday consumer away from couture.

According to the BBC, he was expelled from the rarified guild of French fashion designers. A year later, however, he was showing his first ready-to-wear menswear, a cutting edge collection that included those Nehru-style collarless jackets (an adaptation of the type worn by the Indian prime minister) sold at his Adam boutique, which would go on to inspire the likes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Cardin’s interest in futurism and the Apollo space programme led him to put models in knitted catsuits and space helmets, as well as men and women in avant garde tunics (also setting a precedent for unisex fashion).

Cardin on the red carpet in Cannes, southern France, in 1979.
Cardin on the red carpet in Cannes, southern France, in 1979. Photograph: Jean-Jacques Levy/AP

In 1969, in a career high, Nasa commissioned him to create a spacesuit. “The dresses I prefer are those I invent for a life that does not yet exist,” Cardin said at the time.

In 1979, Cardin became the first French designer to trade with China, and in 1983, he became the first to trade in the Soviet Union. He was also the first designer to hold a fashion show in Red Square, Moscow, drawing a crowd of 200,000 in 1991.

In a statement to the press, Cardin’s family praised his “tenacious ambition and the daring he has shown throughout his life”, as well as his contribution “early on into the flow of globalisation”.

By the 00s, the Pierre Cardin brand had lost some of its cache, and in 2011 he put his fashion label up for sale for €1bn, although it failed to find a buyer. Yet Cardin is still considered a trailblazer in the lucrative world of futurism, fashion and merchandise. As he told the New York Times in 1987: “I was born an artiste, but I am a businessman”.