Though it was the costumes created for an elaborate masquerade ball hosted by art collector Carlos de Beistegui at Venice’s Palazzo Labia in 1951 that “launched” Cardin’s career, it was his more futuristic designs for which he is best remembered. Most famous of all is his “bubble dress” (named so because of the way it flared from below the waist and ruched together along the hemline) launched in 1954. His 1960s dresses, meanwhile—square-cut with large circular cutouts and geometric sleeves—continue to define space-age chic to this day. His landmark Cosmos collection in 1964 anticipated unisex clothing, while his preference of crisp but agile textiles, like jersey and wool crepe, transformed fashion entirely. (Vinyl and felt were also firm favorites, though he also developed his own fabric, Cardine, which was famously worn by Lauren Bacall in 1968.)
“The clothes that I prefer are those I invent for a life that doesn’t exist yet—the world of tomorrow,” said the designer ahead of a retrospective at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 1990. Beyond his cut, cloth, and construction choices, Cardin was in many ways responsible for creating the landscape of the fashion industry as we understand it today. First, he launched ready-to-wear as a concept in 1959, an egalitarian move that scandalized the fashion world and ended in his expulsion from the Chambre Syndicale, couture’s ruling body. By bringing high fashion to the masses, he effectively becomes the first-ever designer label. He was one of the first to take his show on the road, by way of destination showcases at places that western high fashion hadn’t reached out to before: China, India, Vietnam, and even Moscow’s Red Square.
The fortune he made was readily invested in classic French real estate, including the Marquis de Sade’s castle in the Lubéron district where he held annual cultural events. He also famously purchased Antti Lovag’s Palais Bulles (the Bubble Palace) near Cannes, following the death of original owner Pierre Bernard in 1991. (Cardin had in fact helped to design the Palais, which was a further exemplar of his fascination with offbeat geometric designs.)
During his lifetime, Cardin received various awards for his contributions to French design and culture, including the Order of Cultural Merit from the Monaco Principauté. He was also made an honorary ambassador of UNESCO, and a goodwill ambassador for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Age did nothing to slow the eternal futurist. In 2014, he launched a permanent museum in central Paris to showcase his most iconic designs. 2016 saw a showcase in the south of France, while October 2017 saw the then-95-year-old launch a pop-up shop during London Fashion Week.
Cardin once told The Telegraph: “Clothes are important, everyone has to dress. It’s like plants, like trees, you change your cover every season […] To know whether a designer’s left a mark on fashion you need to close your eyes and think what they represent. Chanel left her little suit, Paco Rabanne’s about metal. Courreges left a mark as did Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet…” And as for Cardin himself? There is little doubt that he has left quite a mark.