Layering archive footage and soundbites with the kind of quickfire verve suited to a catwalk backdrop, the introductory montage to “House of Cardin” presents us with a number of words to describe Pierre Cardin: “Genius” is the overriding one, uttered by multiple luminaries in his thrall, with other flattering variations (“creator,” “chic,” “modern,” “innovator”) rounding it out. Buried in the mix, however, with no identified source, is a somewhat contrasting statement: “a little bit of a sellout.” It portends a note of critical balance in Todd Hughes and P. David Ebersole’s documentary portrait of the Paris couturier turned global one-man brand, though the ensuing film — bright and glitzily entertaining as it is — never quite bears out that promise. Lively as an overview of Cardin’s creative and commercial achievements, “House of Cardin” is considerably vaguer when it comes to his personal life and legacy.
It is Cardin himself, via a decades-old interview clip, who delivers the most salient observation on his unusual place within the fashion industry. Asked why he refers to himself in the third person, he replies by describing himself as an “element”: “My name [is] by my creations but no longer as a human person. The brand is the third dimension, it is no longer me.”
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It’s an astute statement that cuts to the heart of what is, according to your perspective, either admirable or discreditable about Cardin’s design career: Beginning as a singular and innovative artist in the world of haute couture, he relinquished his individual vision to let a globally accessible label for all manner of clothing and industrial design prosper in his name. This literal and deliberate cheapening of his brand gets Cardin hailed as “the first socialist in fashion” in some quarters, and as an opportunistic capitalist in others: Amid the gushing, glowing talking-head testimonies from peers, colleagues and celebrity devotees like Sharon Stone and Naomi Campbell, the film grapples only lightly with this paradox.
For most of its fleet, peppy running time this is a valentine, and a lavishly illustrated one at that — with a wealth of archive photography and catwalk footage serving as a healthy reminder to younger viewers (who might mainly associate Cardin’s name with conservative business suits and mass-made accessories) of the witty, subversive modernism that drove his original creative sensibility. Following a standard-issue bio-doc structure, Hughes and Ebersole quickly sketch in the details of the Italian-born designer’s childhood and formative Parisian rag-trade days, noting the importance of early friendships and collaborations with Jean Cocteau and Christian Dior in pushing him up the ladder, until he founded his own fashion house in 1950.
A section on his midcentury glory days highlights Cardin’s progressiveness within the industry in a number of respects, claiming him as the principal architect in releasing the female form from rigidly corseted silhouettes, as well as the first couturier to design a menswear collection — with his early semi-casual designs for the Beatles marking an influential shift away from classic men’s tailoring. Cardin acolyte Dionne Warwick is on hand to celebrate his pioneering efforts in placing models of color on European catwalks, with his chief muse, the late Japanese model Hiroko Matsumoto, affectionately showcased. His rivalry with contemporary Yves Saint Laurent, particularly in terms of who was the first to create cheaper, more democratized women’s ready-to-wear lines, is briefly touched upon, though the 97-year-old Cardin’s brusque reticence on the subject in present-day interview footage leaves audiences to read between the lines.
As we shift into the 1970s, when the mass commercialization of Cardin’s brand spiraled to a near-absurd degree — with his name and logo shown stamped on everything from cookware to padlocks to, famously, a jazzed-up AMC Javelin — the commentary thins out a bit. Former Cardin protégé Philippe Starck wryly describes a disconnect between his own purported communist values and Cardin’s capitalist ones, but the film could stand more rigorous analysis of how the brand shifted in subsequent decades, ultimately landing quite far from its former place at the forefront of contemporary fashion. Frédéric Tcheng’s recent “Halston,” which likewise chronicled a major fashion designer’s mass-market pivot and its consequences, did so with a little more attention to artistic and economic specifics: Cardin’s story obviously has a happier ending-in-progress, though the films would make complementary companion pieces.
“House of Cardin” is also surprisingly coy on the subject of Cardin’s personal life and apparent bisexuality, offering the broadest outline of key romantic relationships with actor Jeanne Moreau and design colleague Andre Oliver with little emotional grain and grit. The designer’s refusal to write an autobiography is noted, as, somewhat wistfully, is his rise to fame in an era where a certain class of celebrities’ private lives were kept private. It’s not that this pacy, colorful doc requires saucy or salacious tidbits, however — just a deeper, more empathetic sense of the passions, romantic or otherwise, that may have driven its subject from equality-minded trailblazer to mogul to, in his own words, a mere element of his own name.