The space race inspired a feeling that anything was possible: you just had to imagine something, and there it was. In the 1960s culture was energised by a boundless optimism and faith in technology, as artists, writers, filmmakers and designers came up with competing visions of the future. Pierre Cardin, a French designer born in 1922, was one of these seers. A new exhibition on at the Brooklyn Museum – “Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion” – captures his prescient attempts to push the limits of design, fashion and retail.
It focuses on Cardin’s many firsts: he was the first fashion designer to visit NASA, and the first Western designer to see the potential of China as a market – with millions of potential consumers. He was also the first designer to license his name and initials, giving him freedom to focus on other projects, like buying the Paris restaurant Maxim’s and turning it into a global brand.
Cardin lived in an era of imagination, and was free to explore worlds that had seemed invisible to designers before him. Yet many of his innovations came before the space age. In 1946 he began making high-end, custom-fitted clothes while living in Paris and working as one of Christian Dior’s first employees. Dior’s haute couture was too expensive for most people, and Cardin quickly forged his own idea of who his customers should be: everyone from Jacqueline Kennedy, for whom he created a famous red-wool suit in 1961, to high-street shoppers. In 1959 he realised this vision: becoming one of the first fashion designers to launch a “ready-to-wear” line with his radical collection for Printemps, a department store in Paris. Making high fashion accessible was not a universally welcomed feat – Cardin was temporarily expelled from Chambre Syndicale, the French fashion industry’s governing body.
He rebelled again in the 1960s, with another pioneering tactic: selling licences so that other businesses and individuals could use his branding on their products. Cardin has stamped his logo on more than 850 licences, including everything from soap to frying pans, and has amassed a fortune in the process (in 2011 Cardin valued his business empire at £897m, though some analysts estimated the value at half that). The practice is now common in the fashion industry, though some critics thought (and still do think) that it cheapened his label – one Harvard Business Review article includes Cardin as a case study in a piece titled “How Not to Extend Your Luxury Brand”.
In the exhibition, Cardin’s ingenuity is most evident in the unorthodox shapes of his signature designs. His geometric “porthole” dresses, with protruding triangular busts and sharp edges, are a departure from the traditional fitted dresses of the 1950s, which were designed for an hourglass figure. A variety of Cardin’s avant-garde designs are on display: he created linen trousers with bulging circular discs at the knee, and dressed models in sheer plexiglass visors. He experimented with modern fabrics like PVC and created an entirely new one, a heat-treated synthetic fabric which he christened Cardine.
Though Cardin’s clothes look futuristic, they also reflect the past in which he designed them. His “Cosmocorps” suits were created as uniforms for humans living on the Moon or Mars, yet were also a prescient example of unisex clothing at a time when traditional gender roles – and the clothes men and women wore – were becoming blurred. Cardin’s designs are also timeless: many of them would not look out of place today. Their sharp angles and geometric shapes can be found on modern catwalks; one 2010 show at Central Saint Martin’s college in London was full of angular cuts, and looked like a tribute to Cardin’s vision of the future. But the next time you encounter Cardin’s influence might not be on the runway. It will probably be plastered on the packaging of a bar of chocolate, a colourful tie or maybe a bath towel – via one of the designer’s many licences.
Raquel Welch in a Pierre Cardin outfit featuring a miniskirt and necklace in blue vinyl, worn with a plexiglass visor
To Cardin, the possibilities of design extended not only to new shapes and lines, but to the very materials that made clothing. This image features the actress Raquel Welch, herself a pioneer who preferred to play strong female characters rather than submissive sex symbols. Welch wears a plastic scarf, a miniskirt and a visor made of plexiglass. Clear plastics could represent visions of outer space, but Cardin also favoured them because he could make clothing that was “simultaneously visible and invisible”.
Pierre Cardin “Cosmocorps” suits and “Porthole” dresses, 1968
In the 1960s many pop-culture depictions of the future imagined a more inclusive and egalitarian world. Cardin’s “Cosmocorps”, seen in this photograph, are a vision of clothing in a “future for everyone”. He thought that by 2069 everyone would be wearing his space uniforms. The Beatles made famous Cardin’s minimalist, collarless, unisex suits, but the “Cosmocorps” also resemble the costumes worn by male and female actors in the original “Star Trek”, which premiered in 1966.
Pierre Cardin minidresses with sculpted bust detail, 1966
Cardin and several of his contemporaries, particularly Mary Quant, are credited with helping popularise the miniskirt. Cardin’s miniskirts and minidresses were part of his mission to democratise fashion. Young women could buy his “ready to wear” designs in department stores, rather than from an expensive tailor. With cone-shaped busts that might have been plucked out of a science-fiction film, these were a liberating departure from the dreary dresses of previous eras.
Presentation of Pierre Cardin’s Spring 2017 collection at Yellow River Stone Forest National Geological Park in Baiyin, China, 2016
In 1978 Pierre Cardin became the first Western designer to visit the People’s Republic of China, beginning a fruitful relationship that remains strong today. Cardin has set his fashion shows in China amid dramatic backdrops like the Yellow River Stone Forest, seen above, along with a show set in a mock-up of the Gobi Desert. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of his first arrival in China, Cardin orchestrated a show on the Great Wall itself last year. It featured more than 300 models, while Cardin's name was emblazoned on the 2,300-year-old structure. Perhaps mastery over these landscapes is the closest Cardin can arrive at conquering earth while remaining on it. After all, you can see the Great Wall from outer space, though unfortunately not from the Moon – a fact confirmed by the astronauts of Apollo 11.
Pierre Cardin wearing Apollo 11 space suit, 1969
What would people wear on the moon? Cardin was fascinated by the possibilities offered by space travel, and his designs were inspired by fantasy visions of space, like George Melies’ film, “A Trip to the Moon” (1902). As space travel became a less abstract idea, he began to incorporate what he gleaned from actual astronauts into his designs, including the practical realities of living and breathing outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. Cardin visited NASA in Houston in 1969, showing how dedicated he was to creating designs that went beyond the superficial.
Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion Brooklyn Museum until January 5th 2020