New Documentary and Exhibition Resurrect Recognition for Couturier Pierre Cardin

Courtesy of P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes

Filmmakers P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes visited Cardin's flagship store with the hope of meeting "our design hero.... By 2 p.m. we were having lunch with Mr. Cardin. When we suggested the documentary, he said: 'OK, let’s go.'"

Few millennials may recognize the name Pierre Cardin, but for about two decades, starting in the late '60s, the couturier was a fashion force without equal. The forthcoming documentary House of Cardin (directed by husband-husband team P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, produced by Cori Coppola) and a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, "Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion" (running through Jan. 5 2020), should resurrect recognition for the couturier’s myriad accomplishments.

Pioneering the business of branded merchandise, Cardin affixed his name to an unprecedented array of more than 850 products, distributed globally, which made him recognized worldwide and his circular "PC" initial logo iconic. All the while, due to his superlative technical abilities, Cardin operated as an esteemed couturier — with whom Jean-Paul Gaultier and Philippe Starck both sought their first jobs – as well as an in-demand costume designer for blue chip film projects.

Cardin outfitted Elizabeth Taylor for The V.I.P.s and suited up Curd Jürgens’ Bond villain character, Karl Stromberg, for The Spy Who Loved Me.

In the process, he also became a respected cultural force. Acquiring the fabled Belle Époque Paris restaurant, Maxim’s, in 1981, Cardin demonstrated that fashion designers could sell food, and Ralph Lauren took note. Operating as a theatrical impresario, he orchestrated Gérard Depardieu’s first acting gig. Cardin’s personal life proved the talk of Hollywood after he became embroiled in a complicated four-year romance with Jeanne Moreau (whom he dressed on- and offscreen in the late '60s), while he maintained a relationship with his longtime design and life partner, André Oliver.

"Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion" opened on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing and focuses on the Space Age look the designer made famous in the '60s to portray him as a "trailblazer," explains Anne Pasternak, who is the Shelby White and Leon Levy director of the Brooklyn Museum. "Throughout his decades-long career, Pierre Cardin has proved to be a master tailor and designer, as well as an intuitive businessman," adds Matthew Yokobosky, senior curator of fashion and material culture at the Brooklyn Museum.  

The 95-minute House of Cardin documentary will premiere as a special screening in the "Venice Days" section at the 76th Venice International Film Festival, which runs Aug. 28 to Sept. 7.  The documentary comprehensively dissects the life journey of Cardin, a fashion titan whose star might have dimmed in recent years, although, as the doc displays, at 97 years old, he is still going strong. Controlling his fashion empire, Cardin turns up for work every day at his Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré Paris fashion headquarters, where some of the film is set.

The filmmaking process evolved over two years. Ebersole and Hughes shadowed their subject – who is sprightly, despite his age — in his design studio and traveling around France. They also journeyed with his loyal, tight-knit international team to Beijing, New York, Tokyo and Venice.

However, Ebersole and Hughes trace the project’s origin to their own domestic move from Los Angeles to Palm Springs in 2014. Setting up a mid-century modern home, the couple sought out one-of-kind furniture and fixtures and acquired pieces that Cardin created as "utilitarian sculpture" in the '70s. They also amassed a collection of jazz and prog-rock LPs from Les Disques Pierre Cardin (a record label the designer established in 1970) and a rare Javelin automobile that was customized by Cardin and produced as a limited edition by AMC in 1972. "Then we went to the store," says Hughes.

Ebersole and Hughes' recollection of a fateful 2017 trip to a Pierre Cardin boutique in Paris’ Le Marais should inspire budding fashion documentarians to pursue their dream subjects. After the pair displayed photos of their vintage Cardin collection to a boutique sales assistant, Cardin was summoned to meet them.

"We actually went to the flagship store with the hope of getting to meet our design hero and, at most, getting a photograph with him for Facebook to impress our friends," admits Ebersole. "We went into the store at about 10 a.m. By 2 p.m. we were having lunch with Mr. Cardin. When we suggested the documentary, he said: 'OK, let’s go.'"

But when the cameras rolled, Cardin was guarded during interviews. "Over the years he has developed answers to certain questions," admits Ebersole.

The conversation turned candid when they shadowed Cardin at work — venturing to a book launch, to Lacoste, France (where Cardin restored and established a cultural center in a 15th-century castle in which the Marquis de Sade once lived), and his new home in Houdan, near Paris. "Once he was walking and talking, he really opened up," Ebersole says.

When Mr. Cardin was unavailable, his nephew and right-hand-in-business Rodrigo Basilicati Cardin took the lead. For example, in a poignant scene, Rodrigo is portrayed revisiting his uncle’s home, near Veneto, where Cardin was born to a French wine merchant in 1922. 

Cardin himself, however, clearly recalls his family’s flight to France from Fascist Italy during World War II. He narrates his solo journey on to Paris. His recollection of a chance encounter on the street in 1945, which led to his assistant’s job at the prestigious House of Paquin, is also beautifully portrayed through archive footage. At Paquin, Cardin worked under masterly Antonio del Castillo, who tasked him with helping the artist Christian Bérard produce the costumes for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast.

The combination of Cardin’s conversation with newsreel and interview footage enlivens his career rise and personal complications, including his legendary time at Christian Dior — where he was the pattern cutter who worked on the groundbreaking 1947 collection "The New Look" — along with his casting a diverse range of models for his own fashion shows onward from the '60s, plus the outlaw status Cardin attained amidst the Paris fashion community due to his pursuit of ready-to-wear and branding, not to mention the retelling of the Cardin-Moreau-Oliver love triangle.

"All that Pierre Cardin did for fashion is truly remarkable," remarks Hughes. "He is an unsung force that changed the course of fashion history," Ebersole says. Stay tuned. After Venice, Cardin’s "unsung" status could change.

Updated July 31 at 8:52 a.m.