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Who was Pierre Cardin? French fashion giant who invented the bubble dress dies at 98

Cardin pioneered many 'firsts' in fashion — from the bubble dress, pioneering ready-to-wear designer collections to exploiting licensing agreements to earn massive royalties
UPDATED DEC 29, 2020
Pierre Cardin (Getty Images)
Pierre Cardin (Getty Images)

Pierre Cardin, the legendary French designer has died in a hospital in Neuilly, Paris, his family confirmed on December 29. “It is a day of great sadness for all our family. Pierre Cardin is no more,” they said in a statement. “We are all proud of his tenacious ambition and the daring he has shown throughout his life.” With a career spanning more than six decades, he is most well-known for contributing one of the most futuristic silhouettes to modern fashion — the bubble dress. He is also notorious for being a licensing pioneer, lending his name to everything from a pen to a frying pan.

The son of Italian immigrants, he worked with luminaries such as filmmaker Jean Cocteau and designer Christian Dior. But when he launched his own label, his very first collection in 1951 set him apart. His first collection revealed him as an individual with a style different from other haute couture brands like Balenciaga and Christian Dior. He favored clean and curved lines, bold colors, and a space-age aesthetic that relied on architectural shapes and geometric details. 

Four of the new uniforms for French nurses designed by couturier Pierre Cardin. (Getty Images)

In 1954, he introduced his “bubble dress” — the distinctive pouf silhouette that comes back to us in every fashion cycle which reinvents '50s fashion. As iconic as Chanel's little black dress, or Dior's New Look (an era during which Cardin was Dior's head of tailoring), Cardin's bubble dress would launch his name into the firmament of fashion's great innovators. Less extravagant were his styles for men, which followed more severe lines and flat upturned "Nehru collars" — the look again became iconic once the Beatles adopted the style. Clothing, according to him was meant “to give the body its shape, the way a glass gives shape to the water poured into it.” 

His landmark Cosmos collection in 1964 predicted how unisex clothing would become all the rage while also experimenting with "futuristic" materials like silver vinyl but also other fabrics that have since become fashion staples like jersey and wool crepe. He also developed his own fabric, "Cardine", which was famously worn by Lauren Bacall in 1968.

Born Pietro Cardin in Treviso, Italy, in 1922, his French parents escaped Italy’s fascist regime when Cardin was two years old, settling in St. Etienne, a coal-mining town in eastern central France. His background possibly had something to do with how he went about democratizing high fashion, making sure his designs were available to both the masses and the rich. In 1959, Cardin released his first mass-produced ready-to-wear collection with the French department store Printemps. While prêt-à-porter collections by designers are now the established norm, back then it got Cardin kicked out of the exclusive syndicate of haute couture designers in France.

A fashion model wearing evening see-through long dress in white lace by French fashion designer Pierre Cardin (Getty Images)

He also demolished geographical boundaries. Back then France was the be-all and end-all of high fashion but Cardin saw the potential beyond borders. He was the first to sell high fashion designs in Japan, and by the end of the 1960s, he was offering his designs for mass production in China. In 1983, his designs were being manufactured in Soviet factories and sold in Cardin boutiques in Moscow — the first French couturier to achieve the feat.

He was also referred to as the "Napoleon of licensors" when he became notorious in the '80s for lending his name to a wide-ranging slew of products through a network of licensees that earned him regular royalties of 5 to 12 percent of his income. Again, while the move that dulled the exclusivity of his brand, this innovation again became an established and frequently used industry norm. It is now common for high fashion brands to do the same, albeit with more discretion, targeting the label-hungry masses.