At 98 years old, Pierre Cardin is still leading from the gut. Decades ago he was booted from France’s Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture for selling ready-to-wear (which he pioneered); had an affair with actress Jeanne Moreau (without breaking up with his longtime live-in male partner); and held Cold War-era fashion-show extravaganzas in Communist countries. That’s on top of the revolutionary designs of his clothing — upon which he affixed the first visible designer logo.
Yet the nonagenarian inventor of space-age chic, unisex fashion shows, and fragrance in a penis-shaped bottle had never granted anyone permission to film an authorized documentary about him. Until he met two superfans who also happen to be film directors (and husbands!).
Todd Hughes and P. David Ebersole aren’t Hollywood machers. Their modest-yet-fabulous films cover niche subjects such as Patty Schemel, the drummer from the band Hole (Hit So Hard), and Cher’s mother Georgia Holt (Dear Mom, Love Cher). Glitzy flights of fancy aren’t their moviemaking style. But the personal vibe just felt right when Cardin met the duo at his flagship store in Paris in 2017. Ebersole and Hughes found themselves meeting and chatting with Cardin that fateful morning, lunching with him at noon, and getting tapped to make the film by the time espressos were served.
The result is an intimate, all-access look at a genius whose decades of design and cultural influence have finally been captured in a visual joyride. House of Cardin premiered last summer at the Venice International Film Festival — an apt location as Cardin, né Pietro Cardine, spent his early childhood about 25 miles away, near Treviso. Its US release includes outdoor screenings and virtual events starting August 28, and streaming on Altavod starting September 12. (More details at House of Cardin.)
We spoke with the directors, who live together, work together, and, for this, spoke in the royal “we.”
There have been a lot of fashion-doc portraits lately — Valentino, Halston, McQueen. How does House of Cardin fit in that genre?
For us, Unzipped (the 1995 film about Isaac Mizrahi) was the fashion doc that made the biggest impact. Halston is a great doc — it’s like Pierre’s story. But all of the designers who have been subjects of docs were limited to the world of fashion. The great thing about House of Cardin is that the fashion is just one part of it. There is so much more to Pierre Cardin, including a 70-year career spanning the defining moments of the 20th century.
Even fashion phreaks may be surprised to know Cardin founded and ran a successful performance space and record label, and was once an actor.
The happiness and joy of creation and fellowship completely overshadows the inevitable tragedy that most other designers seem to encounter. We are getting a lot of folks — mostly men — who have been dragged to see House of Cardin by someone, and then say they are so glad they saw it, mainly because it is about so much more than fashion. There are bigger issues that make it easy to relate to.
Cardin founded his house in 1950 and licensed some 850 different products. How did you wade through the material and figure out how to present it?
It’s not easy to fit a 98-year life into a 97-minute film. In America, there is a perception of Pierre Cardin being a sellout who had ruined his brand by over-licensing to make millions. In Europe and Asia the perception of Cardin is vastly different. In China he is almost god-like. He lost interest in America because of the harsh criticism he got for over-licensing. He even turned down David Geffen’s 1979 offer to make Cardin number one in the USA, a deal that was then offered to Calvin Klein. We know what happened with that — nothing came between Brooke and her Calvins. Certain benchmarks of Pierre’s career rose to the top, and once we covered that, we had run out of time!
Cardin’s unprecedented level of licensing was and still is considered by many in fashion to be anathema to maintaining a brand’s air of luxury and exclusivity. Why did Cardin not see it that way?
He was motivated by success and going as far as he could with an idea. Remember, he was the first. He was exploring new territory and, of course, he’s going to make mistakes along the way. He basically gave Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent a primer on what not to do, which is why when YSL did pret-a-porter, used models of color, and many other things, he did them so well and is remembered in a much fonder way than the pioneer. Pierre’s dream was to democratize fashion. Why should luxury and exclusivity only be available to rich, white French women? He wanted everyone in every land to have the ability to look and feel fashionable. Making money and seeing his name everywhere was a byproduct of that desire, which he doesn’t mind at all.
Last year’s blockbuster retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion, highlighted a duality of his clothing, that they were revolutionary, sometimes gimmicky, and yet so timeless that most of it would look chic today.
Like Andy Warhol and Gore Vidal, Pierre is a futurist. He was really able to envision 50 years in the future, which is why all his ’60s fashions, as Naomi Campbell says in the film, “look like it’s from today.” The odd duality of the House also came from Pierre working with [lover and business partner] Andre Oliver. Pierre caught the eye of the fashion press by being so way-out with unusual fabrics while Andre Oliver kept sales high, designing much more conservative looks. Full service! Something for everyone.
Cardin seems so open as a person. So why has he only now agreed to a doc about himself?
This is a mystery. There is a general consensus that Pierre is clairvoyant, which would explain why he chose us at first sight to make this film. Almost everyone who works or worked for him has a similar story of Pierre just pointing at him and saying yes or giving them a position in his company even if they had no experience. He goes with his gut. The time was right especially in light of the pandemic. We filmed in France, Japan, China, Italy and the US.
Who is Pierre Cardin?
He is a gentle, sweet, and generous man. He was the first to seek to unite diverse cultures and people through the line and the cut of fashion. Because people don’t know him at all, they sometimes assume he’s a greedy tyrant. Pierre lives an almost monastic life. His needs are few. But he wakes up every day with a new idea that must be realized — he still goes to work every day! And that’s what we found interesting.