In the late 1950s, the revolutionary French couturier Pierre Cardin broke Parisian fashion with the presentation of the first ready-to-wear collections for women and men. Considered by his confreres as too democratic, he was unceremoniously expelled from the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne, the governing body of French fashion at the time. Cardin, who died in Paris on Tuesday aged 98, didn’t care. “I was born an artist,” he told the New York Times in 1987, “but I’m a businessman.”
Indeed he was. After becoming fashionable as an assistant to Paquin, Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior after the war in Paris, he went into business for himself in 1950 and eventually became the king of licensing, with his name stamped on everything from silk scarves to cigarettes. In the 1960s, Cardin was lauded for his groovy space age designs for women. But it was his men’s fashion that really had a lasting effect. He adapted the collarless neckline of the jackets of the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to suits and created a look that can be seen to this day. He cut suits slim – small shoulders, high armholes, a tight, tailored waist – a silhouette Hedi Slimane built his career on. Twenty years ago, when Cardin was 78 years old and was still working in his studio on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, he sat down to talk about men’s clothing. The interview has not yet been published.
Dana Thomas: When did you launch your menswear line?
Pierre Cardin: 1958. At that time, men’s fashion came from England and Italy. I was the first to do designer menswear in Paris. I showed it at the Hôtel Crillon and asked students to model it because I wanted to bring the youth into my fashion. It was the first time anyone did this. I’ve completely overturned male fashion.
Why did you choose men’s fashion?
I wanted to get dressed. And I thought: why do the Italians and the British design menswear and not the French?
How was fashion for the French back then?
There was no fashion for men in Paris. Well-dressed French went to London to get bespoke clothes. Everything else was very common.
Was your line only for the French?
No, it was for the whole world. I wanted to influence men’s fashion as well as women’s fashion.
Why did you think about bringing men’s fashion onto the market back then?
I was 25 years old and I wanted to be very elegant. People told me how I dressed myself and that I was elegant. This is the kind of fashion I wanted to create and it worked very well.
How has fashion design changed since then?
Before that, those of us who worked in fashion received an education. We worked and learned for old houses. Now everyone who can or cannot draw is given a name. It’s so superficial.
Is it important to always be well dressed?
I can define someone by their clothes – if they are an intellectual, an artist, an ordinary, refined. Whether it has good or bad taste. If he likes to provoke with colors. When he’s discreet. We can define everything in terms of clothing. That’s something amazing.
What is the Cardin silhouette?
Like a pipe, cylindrical. In factories it is very difficult to do.
What do you think of black tie?
A man in a tuxedo is very nice. Even if he’s ugly, short, or fat, a tuxedo gives him a certain class.
At Versailles the men were better dressed than the women.
Dressed just as well, sure. Men of the court had only this to fear when they got up in the morning. They put on makeup, repaired their hair, and got dressed to prepare for court lunch. That was their job.
And today? Will menswear be back in style?
Certainly. It’s a cycle.