A New Doc Explores How Pierre Cardin Built a Fashion Empire

A New Doc Explores How Pierre Cardin Built a Fashion Empire

When Pierre Cardin set up his couture house in the '50s, he had already worked with the likes of Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior. What followed was a series of industry firsts for the Italian-born, French-naturalized designer, including bringing Western fashion to China, holding the first men's runway show in Paris and popularizing the now-common practice of licensing.

While he's perhaps best known for his Space Age designs and '60s geometric shapes (his famous "bubble dress" comes to mind), he was also one of the first couturiers of his generations to champion a diverse mix of models for his shows. Now, Cardin, who's 98 years old, is opening up in a new documentary about his life, career, relationships and legacy.

House of Cardin is the latest directorial debut for P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, the duo behind Room 237, Mansfield 66/67 and Love Cher. Cardin granted the couple exclusive access to his archives and empire, and the film features interviews with the likes of Naomi Campbell, Sharon Stone and Jean Paul Gaultier.

"It was mind boggling to discover that Cardin had touched so many notable people, and that they all held him in such high esteem," the directors said of the interview subjects. "Email inquiries were returned in record time with great enthusiasm to participate in the documentary, and all delivered uniquely interesting anecdotes, with a fierce admiration and respect for Mr. Cardin."

Cardin had previously refused all documentary and biography offers prior to meeting with Ebersole and Hughes in 2017 and saying yes to them on the spot. PAPER caught up with the directing duo ahead of the film's virtual theatrical release on August 28 (and on-demand September 15th). See the full trailer and complete interview, below.

How did the idea for a Pierre Cardin film come about and why was the subject in particular so interesting for you guys to capture?

Todd Hughes: Well, we always say it's divine intervention, because this movie was born out of our love of Pierre Cardin. We were collectors. We had moved to Palm Springs, and there was a piece of Pierre Cardin furniture that we bought. And we were just like, "Wow, this designer is extraordinary," and then we started collecting his furniture, and then we saw he kind of pioneered lifestyle, he was the first designer to do games, or lights, or sheets, towels. He had a record label. He had a car. He was the first designer to partner with car companies, so he did the 1972 AMC Javelin—

P. David Ebersole: Which is in our garage. The car that's in the movie is our car.

Hughes: So we were just these crazy people, and we were in Paris and stumbled upon the Pierre Cardin Museum. We went in and we were like, "We didn't even know he was a real person!" We thought of him like Betty Crocker, just sort of this mythical — he'd been around since we were little kids, right? We've always known that. So, to find out he was a real person, and he was alive... and we were showing a guy who worked there pictures of our car, and he's like, "Oh, Monsieur Cardin loves to meet people who appreciate him." We're like, "We've got to get a picture for Facebook, right?" [Laughs]

A year later, we came face-to-face with him and we weren't actually asking to do a documentary. We were in Paris with our last documentary, Mansfield 66/67, showing in a festival and so they knew we were documentary filmmakers. Pierre has always said no to this type of thing, to biographies or documentaries. For some reason, when we sat down face-to-face with him and he saw that we drove his car, he said, "What do you guys want and when do you want to start?"

Ebersole: We were off and running. To some extent, he looked at us, connected with us and for some reason felt like it was safe, and wanted us to be the people who told the story.

What were your impressions of him upon learning more about his world and started delving into his life?

Ebersole: He's such a unique person, and he does adhere to the idea that you should do what you love and the rest will follow. You hear people say that all the time, but he's a man who's lived out of it and drawn all of this incredible success, but also just success in the world, success in life, as a person, because he stayed true to himself and stayed true to what he loves to do. So it's very inspiring to find yourself around this man and who many call a genius, but also there's a light within that he was so willing and open to sharing that with us, and letting us be a part of it.

We felt very lucky and we also look back on it now as a time with how locked up we are, that it's a movie that could only take place in the time that he said yes to allow it to happen. So we always think of it as being somebody who's so clairvoyant. I mean, we traveled the world to tell his story. We went to Tokyo, to Beijing, Venice, obviously Paris many times, etc. These are, right now, places we can't capture or go to, and certainly all of the people that we've talked to and interviewed, where we were able to do these beautiful, big sit-down interviews, it could not take place now. So, it was a magical experience and a magical moment.

You have Naomi Campbell, Sharon Stone, Dionne Warwick, all these big names who agreed to a sit-down interview. What were those conversations like, getting them to participate in the film and finally having them all come together?

Hughes: It was really nice, because you feel like you've discovered a really good brand. A brand you can trust and that others trust. So, you're going to these people like, "Would you like to participate in a Pierre Cardin documentary?" And they're like, "Of course!" The only person who said no was Gerard Depardieu—

Ebersole: Who's a very good friend of his, and they were just having dinner together three weeks ago or something like that. So, I guess he just doesn't like to do documentaries. But you reach out when you have somebody like Pierre Cardin, and you're asking people to participate, and they come back with enthusiasm.

Hughes: Everyone said yes. And the people that said yes that we didn't get to, just 'cause our schedules didn't ever mesh — but, two Beatles, both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr both said yes, Brigitte Bardot said yes, that's very rare.

Ebersole: We started with Philippe Starck and with Jean Paul Gaultier, because we know how important they are to Pierre's story, and that they were proteges of his and that they went on to have major design careers. And Naomi Campbell, because she's the one celebrity that consistently wears couture, vintage Cardin on the red carpet. And, of course, we know that Cardin had opened up diversity on the runway, and we thought she would be great for that as well. She still, to this day, has never met Pierre. Part of the reason she wanted to be in the documentary is she has a huge amount of respect for the couturiers and she wanted to get her opportunity to meet him. He was sick the day that we filmed, so he couldn't be on set and we've still been trying to see if we can find a way to bring them together. But, of course, now that's hard.

Compared to your previous films, what new viewpoints did you discover about working in this type of project, where it's so much about the intricacies of the fashion world?

Hughes: We don't speak French! [Laughs]

Ebersole: We had to subtitle everything to be able to work, so it was a very complicated post-production.

Hughes: And we needed translators every step of the way.

Ebersole: There's this massive amount of material being used, 'cause it's a 70-year career. And so, we go from footage and photos from the '40s all the way to today. We have so much material to build with. It's the biggest we've ever done. We have all these very grand interviews, so the scope of it was much more than anything we've ever done.

Has Pierre seen the film?

Ebersole: We gave him what's called "meaningful consultation." We have the final cut, but we gave him the right to see the film so that he'd give input — one, about just truth, and whether or not we got everything right, and the other about anything he would say, "I would really need to have that in the movie." He had none of those kind of comments, that he was very complimentary about it, we found out. We were sitting in the pool in Palm Springs, when we knew he was watching the movie at Maxim's in Paris, with our executive producer Matthew Gonder, and Rodrigo, his nephew. We were on edge and we got this text that was from Rodrigo that said, "My uncle saw it, and he said he loves" — you know, it's lost in translation sometimes — "He loves, and everything is true."

The next time he really saw the movie was in front of the audience at the Venice Film Festival last September. He came into the room and got a standing ovation for being there, being himself. When the film was over, the film got a standing ovation, and he got another standing ovation, stood up and he said that it was — I always forget the exact phrase. He said that it was—

Hughes: "Thoughtful—

Ebersole: "Thoughtful, artistic and all true." He spoke to the audience for awhile, did all of the press for the film. He's been really, really supportive.

Hughes: And this is how cool he is! He's 97, doing this press, right? Which is exhausting, as we all know. At some point, he was laughing, and I looked at him and I was like, "What?" And he said, "Are you having a good time?" That's just — we're like, "Yes, Pierre." [Laughs] The time of my life.

How would you guys describe Mr. Cardin's legacy to fashion from what you gathered?

Hughes: Well, I was saying he created the label queen. If it wasn't for Pierre Cardin, we wouldn't be saying, "Who are you wearing?" He was the man who took it from here and put it right here, and that's still going on today more than ever, right? Everything's branded. This guy thought that up.

Ebersole: Really, streetwear comes as a direct descendant of pret-a-porter. So, as the person who brought pret-a-porter from haute couture to department stores, he encouraged the democratization of fashion, that we could all find something to express ourselves in fashion. The idea that now, that is part and parcel of our culture, is something that is part of his legacy, without a doubt. Even that idea of the labels and the branding, Dapper Dan did all that incredible stuff in the '90s, of reclaiming luxury as something that you could identify with if you were just a man or a woman from the street.

Growing up, when you think back to the '50s, where Cardin helped to explode all of this. You know, boys were boys and girls were girls, and men wore suits, and they were only supposed to look like this, and couldn't do anything that was outside the box. Certainly, all of the kind of feeling of atypical sexuality or androgyny, was something that was just not even a part of the accepted culture. It was all part of things that Cardin explored with, and took risks with, and broke boundaries with. So, his legacy is far-reaching, is inside of things now that people don't even realize that he was a part of.

Do you think you'll work on another fashion-focused film in the future? Is this a field you feel more immersed in?

Hughes: Well, we just finished a new documentary about Trini Lopez, the singer who died, unfortunately, of COVID. But we did want to do another fashion documentary, we have a friend named Michael Schmidt. He's a designer, and he's worked with all the greatest people we can imagine, like Deborah Harry, Grace Jones, and—

Ebersole: Cher. Everybody.

Hughes: So we'd love to do one about him, 'cause he's a real unsung gay hero.

Ebersole: We've been trying to piece this together for ourselves now, going on to our sixth documentary. What is the thread that we picked and why did we choose what we're doing? We're really seeing that we're drawn to creative pioneers, so people who have done something through their art to lift and change perspectives of the world that we live in.

Photos courtesy of The Ebersole Hughes Company