For reasons I’m not even completely sure of, I really and truly get a kick out of documentaries about history’s greatest fashion designers, and the one who has never been the subject of one (due to his intensely private nature) is Pierre Cardin. He’s finally decided to open up as he quickly approaches 100 years old in a couple of years. Co-directors P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes finally get Cardin and those closest to him to open up about his life as a designer, an entrepreneur, an innovator, and an enigma.
To say that Cardin is private is a bit misleading: he has constantly been in the public eye, doing everything from opening up new stores around the world and attending parties to celebrating groundbreaking licensing agreements that allow his logo and designs to appear on everything from accessories and perfumes to furniture and luxury jets. It’s difficult to watch House of Cardin, without seeing it as something of a piece of propaganda and advertising, but the documentary does touch on less flattering subjects, like the occasional tantrum, treating both male and female lovers poorly, and even meeting with legendary dictators around the world to expand his influence in nations that weren’t allowing outside retailers. But when he manages to stage an impressive fashion show on the Great Wall of China, it’s clear there was something different about the way Cardin did business.
The film is mostly examples of how Cardin continually broke the mold in many arenas, including hiring non-white models for his top campaigns as far back as the late 1950s and designing men’s wear with as much flare as women’s clothes. But no part of his life story really lands if the designs don’t impress, and they absolutely do, with a team of experts explaining his various phases and innovations, while Cardin himself offers personal memories about what inspired his different looks. There’s a wealth of archival footage and photos that practically put Cardin at the epicenter of popular culture for decades. Hell, the Beatles’s first look was based on Cardin’s designs for men. But it’s his current-day remembrances that seem to enlighten our understanding of the designer, while the older material resembles a corporate sizzle reel—a really good one, but still….
House of Cardin skims over his personal life somewhat, but still manages to (briefly) zero in on a couple of truly important people to him, including actress Jeanne Moreau, with whom he was deeply in love, even though the two may have never consummated their closeness. Aside from a brief but intense feud with fellow designer Yves Saint Laurent ages ago, the movie paints an almost saint-like portrait of Cardin, which seems kind but disingenuous and takes away from some of the more powerful and awe-inspiring portions of his career. Still, you make your way through the fawning and land in an endless closet of clothes that changed the world in some way, among the very rich and those who just like to look nice.
The film will be available to stream through the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Film Center from Your Sofa” series beginning Friday. On Tuesday, September 1, at 6pm, there will be a Facebook Live Q&A with House of Cardin co-directors P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, moderated by actor/writer/director/fashionista Yolonda Ross (“The Chi”).
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