When it comes to longevity and reach, few can equal fashion designer Pierre Cardin. From his heyday in the 1950s to his continued output at age 95, Cardin is the Madonna of the fashion world: ageless and prone to perpetual reinvention. A solo exhibition at the Savannah College of Art and Design Atlanta’s SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, “Pierre Cardin: Pursuit of the Future,” highlights Cardin’s garments from the ’50s to the present day, a remarkably enduring output created by one of the industry’s most influential designers.
Cardin’s pioneering Space Age look of the 1960s — inspired by travel to the moon and a charmingly optimistic, skyward gazing vision of progress — often featured geometric looks designed for that anticipated, imagined future. The designer’s fashion futurism was founded on sleek, slightly androgynous outfits with graphic designs and cutouts and minimalist cloches shaped like space helmets. Cardin claimed inspiration in “the cosmos,” and satellites, even designing the pleats in a “Computers Collection” coat from 1980 to echo the functional venting of a computer’s design.
Even today, Cardin’s unisex clothes can seem, ironically, both of and ahead of their time. Cardin predicted the future in more than one sense, revolutionizing the couture industry by creating a ready-to-wear line that democratized fashion, bringing haute couture to the masses.
And rather than celebrating and enunciating the female curves nature made, Cardin cloaked them in structures of wire and fabric and squares and circles that often hid the body in the apparatus of design, the better to celebrate an emancipated female body. Yesterday and today, Cardin’s graphic circles and triangles turn the body into an emanation of energy and form, a fashion futurist’s muse.
Cardin was an innovator on many levels. An early master of licensing, Cardin became a billionaire selling his name to be affixed to a variety of products from baby carriers to sunglasses, to frying pans. The designer extended his reach into countless households, making his name into a brand.
The clothes in “Pierre Cardin” begin with an iconic “New Look” 1957 wool houndstooth coat that shows the influence of an early employer, Christian Dior, but quickly transition into the slightly trippy outer space Cardin look featuring a modern aesthetic and innovative materials like vinyl.
The playful exhibition design, perfectly suited to the wit and inventiveness of Cardin’s style, is inspired by Cardin’s sci-fi over-the-top vacation getaway Palais Bulles, or “Bubble Palace” near Cannes, France, a futureshock home whose interconnected round rooms make it look like a children’s playscape as envisioned by Antoni Gaudi. You can peek through clear bubble windows into other sections of this “Pierre Cardin” exhibit, or see clothes highlighted in one of the ovum indentations in the white walls. The egg, the bubble, the circle, the cell are recurring motifs in the Cardin oeuvre, an idea of an origin point, the source of life and also an evocation of ideas, exploration and discovery to come.
Part of the approach of SCAD FASH is to do away with any sort of didactic text and instead use its white coated docents (many of them SCAD students studying fashion) to lead visitors through the exhibit. It’s an imperfect system, especially here since the exhibition occasionally presents a vintage piece of Cardin’s next to a more contemporary one and it can be hard to tell the difference at first glance. Even the simple addition of dates would help without marring the aesthetics.
Some of Cardin’s more contemporary designs overplay his futurism into Austin Powers excess. Cut off from the particular wide-eyed optimism of the Space Age, some current designs can occasionally feel like shtick.
But what remains fascinating about the designer is his enduring commitment to what is ultimately a hopeful idea: that fashion is our conduit to imagining a world more limitless than our own.
“Pierre Cardin: Pursuit of the Future”
Through Sept. 30. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays. $10; $8 senior/military; $20 family (three or more); $5 college students with ID; $5 SCAD alumni; free, children under 14, SCAD student/faculty/staff. SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, 1600 Peachtree St. NW, Atlanta. 404-253-3132, scadfash.org.
Bottom line: The imaginative output of one of fashion’s most enduring designers presented with a dash of wit.
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