We look at fashion's poster child for overstretching your brand, Pierre Cardin.
For every brand that wishes to dip its toe into the world of licensing, Pierre Cardin remains the cautionary tale. This writer first came across Pierre Cardin at a local TK Maxx (TJ Maxx renamed for Europe), where his name was emblazoned on a cheap pair of boxer shorts that cost £10 and were permanently marked down from £14.99. There was also a host of cheaply made products with Pierre Cardin embroidered onto them, which had the overall effect of making Cardin appear to be a name made solely to make these products appear high-end. After all, who would want to advertise that they made such awful product? But it wasn’t always this way.
Cardin was born in July 1922 at his parents' vacation home in Italy, specifically in San Andrea da Barbara near Venice. In 1926, his parents moved back to their native France, with Cardin growing up in St. Etienne. Cardin’s parents were wine merchants who had hopes of Cardin becoming an architect. This soon changed once Cardin began showing an aptitude for fashion at the early age of eight, when he used to design dresses for his neighbours' dolls. He then honed his fashion skills by working for a tailor named Manby in Vichy, France in 1935 when he was just 13 years old.
In late 1944, Cardin quit Manby and got a job with the Red Cross, which enabled him to move to Paris. It’s here where his age appears to have been misrepresented. While all accounts agree that he was born in 1922, the Encyclopaedia of World Biography 2004 edition states that he was 17 in 1944 -- if you do the math, Cardin would’ve actually been 22 at the time. It’s also commonly stated that he was 23 in 1950, which would make sense if he was 17 in 1944, but not if he was 22. Basically, between the time at Manby and moving to Paris, 5 years appear to have been shaved off Cardin’s life.
So, in 1944, Cardin became known as a 17-year-old, although he was actually 22. He began working for French designer Paquin. It was during this time he first worked in film, as an uncredited costume maker for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 edition of Beauty and The Beast. In that same year, Cardin began working for Dior as the house's master tailor. He was in charge of creating Dior’s famous 1947 New Look collection. According to biography.com, New Look was “a style of dress intended to emphasize femininity in women's clothing after the period of women taking on traditionally masculine roles during World War II.”
According to “Luxury Fashion Branding: Trends, Tactics and Techniques,” Cardin left Dior after a police investigation leaked Dior’s designs, which he claimed left him “feeling insulted and humiliated.” Cardin decided to set up his own label in 1950 at the age of 28 with the help of costume designer Marcel Escoffier, who he worked with on Beauty and The Beast. He began solely as a costume designer, creating costumes from his attic shop for the capital’s numerous balls. In addition to costumes, he also made suits, gaining a reputation as one of Paris’ best suit designers. Christian Dior encouraged the business, sending his overflow of clients to Cardin as a thank you.
Soon he was an established business. He started out in the attic of the building, but he bought the entire building in 1953 before moving his operations to a six-story 18th-century mansion in Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. He showed his first haute-couture collection in 1953 and became a member of the Chambre Syndicale, a French association of haute couture designers. In 1954, he opened his first boutique, a women’s shop called Eve. He later opened a men's store in 1957, called Adam. His designs gained notoriety during the ‘50s and he had a client list that included Rita Hayworth and Eva Peron, as well as being known for dressing The Beatles.
In 1959, he was the first haute couture designer to launch a ready-to-wear collection. Later on in the same year, he was expelled from the Chambre Syndicale. The two versions for why this happened are that (a) he was expelled for creating a ready-to-wear collection and (b) he resigned in protest of the organization’s press ban. Either way, he was later reinstated that same year.
The '60s was a successful period for Cardin, with the launch of men's and women’s ready-to-wear, a children’s collection and opening a menswear boutique near his Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré studio. It’s also the decade when he was most prolific in costume design, working as a costume designer on films such as A Dandy in Aspic and You Only Live Once. His most notable work came as the wardrobe designer on the TV series The Avengers, working on 30 episodes between 1967 and 1969. In 1966, Cardin resigned from the Chamber Syndicale and began showing his collections in his own venue near the Embassy of the United States in Paris. 1968 was a pivotal year, as it was Cardin’s first-ever license contract year outside of fashion, creating porcelain crockery (example pictured below).
In a 2002 interview with the New York Times, Cardin said this about licensing: “I've done it all! I even have my own water! I'll do perfumes, sardines. Why not? During the war, I would have rather smelled the scent of sardines than of perfume. If someone asked me to do toilet paper, I'd do it. Why not?” This viewpoint was a driving force behind his business deals, with around 800 licenses worldwide today. But the descent took a while to happen. During the ‘70s, he was still an award-winning designer, receiving the Basilica Palladiana award (given to a successful Venetian annually) in 1973. In ’74, he received the EUR, an Italian equivalent of an Academy Award for his services to the world of entertainment. And in ’77, he received the Gold Thimble of French Haute-Couture. During this time he also ventured into industrial design, signing a contract with American Motors Corporation in 1972. He made a special edition version of the AMC Javelin, with 4,152 cars made in total.
By the 1980’s, Cardin had moved solidly into licensing. At the start of the decade he opened a fruit shop, before taking ownership of the Maxim’s restaurant in 1981. Later that year he launched a men’s line named after the restaurant. He expanded Maxim’s, opening a branch in Brussels in 1982, then in China in 1983.
A WWD article from 1984 notes that Cardin had 540 licenses at the time but also that “the designer [had] been praised for his selectivity and the control he obtains when signing over his trademark rights.” By 1985, the tide had turned somewhat. In a Daily News Record article from 1985, Bill Flink of Flink-Wright Associates, who managed designer licensing, said that “once the name becomes a generic, like Blass or Cardin, the consumer doesn't care whether he buys that merchandise at Saks Fifth or K Mart." But, while the licensing was slowly losing the brand's credibility, it was making a great amount of money. In a 1986 WWD article, Cardin’s annual income was reported as more than $10 million, calling him “probably Europe’s wealthiest designer.” At the time, Cardin had grown from 540 licenses in 1984 to 800 by 1986. Cardin was “employing some 160,000 people around the world. Close associates speculate total sales are well over $1 billion. Worldwide fragrance sales alone reportedly reached $60 million [in 1985].”
But, despite the appearance of being a mad house, Cardin was actually very careful with his licensees, or at least made sure to say he was. In a 1986 Daily News Record article, Nick DeMarco, then in charge of coordinating direction for Pierre Cardin in the U.S., said "Cardin personally meets all of the prospects. He'll sit across the desk from the president of a company, and if the person is his senior, ask who will run the Cardin division. He knows in a second whether it's the right choice. If it's not, he exits." At first glance, this appears to be conjecture to make the brand look as if it was still in control of its startling amount of licenses. But it’s something that was echoed by Cardin in the 2002 NY Times interview. When asked if he designed everything he put his name on he said “Absolutely. Under my direction, of course!” But during the same interview he also said that he had to convince the licensees to avoid overt branding, signalling a lack of control. “Now I put the ''P.C.'' on very small, so that it's not very visible. But I have a hard time convincing my licensees. They say: 'We need the logo. That's what sells!' But it's vulgar.” After a decade or so spent in the world of licensing, in 1987, Cardin tried to re-enter the high-end fashion realm.
Simultaneously, he continued to build his licensing empire, traveling to Southeast Asia and specifically Indonesia, where 16 separate companies had registered the Pierre Cardin name as a trademark. In a 1988 Daily News Record article, Cardin met with then Justice Minister Ismail Saleeh to help him in the infringement case. Saleeh stopped more companies infringing on his name, but said he couldn’t do anything to stop the companies who had already registered Cardin’s name. So there remains a high possibility that any Indonesian versions of Pierre Cardin goods are more than likely a counterfeit that simply got away with using the brand’s name due to Indonesia’s lax copyright laws.
These licensing mishaps led to the devaluation of the brand. A 1989 Economist article remarked that “Pierre Cardin's signature is almost as common as that of the American treasury secretary and as devalued as the dollar bills that he signs.” In a DNR article from the same year, Mort Gordon of M.G. Enterprises said that people needed new brands as the old brands had morphed from names with value to regular brands. “Cardin is like Arrow to many retailers. The problem is the perception of some names. Many are considered only a step or two away from the discounters." In a 1992 WWD article reacting to Cardin’s over saturation, Pierre Berge, then chairman of Groupe Yves Saint Laurent SCA, said "You can't continue just sticking your name on a product and expecting people to buy it; Pierre Cardin is the worst example of that. The strategy of ‘I’ll give you my name if you'll give me your money' is simply not legitimate."
By 1995, Cardin had 904 licenses globally and was called “The licensing king,” which wasn’t a compliment. Cardin himself said that "What I'm interested in is mass distribution. It's thanks to my creativity that I became a businessman.” The sheer size of it all made Cardin into the cautionary tale it remains today. In a 1995 WWD article on Jil Sander, her then managing director Richard Bohler said “Pierre Cardin -- he has sold his name for toilet paper. At what point do you lose your identity?” In the same year WWD noted that “Cardin's cachet crashed when his name appeared on everything from key chains to pencil holders.” Despite this loss of credibility, Cardin’s line still generated $1.2 billion at retail that year. The brand never recovered from this loss of credibility however, and was often quoted as the brand you didn’t want to end up like. A 1997 WWD article noted that companies had watched the failure of Cardin’s “blanket approach” and chose to go in a different direction, licensing with a selective, discerning manner.
In 2011, Cardin attempted to sell his business. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Cardin said "I want to sell it now, I know I won't be here in a few years and the business needs to continue." Cardin initially wanted €1 billion for the brand, which was noted in the article as a stretch, with the actual value closer to €200 million. The main issue with the figure was that no one, including Cardin himself, had any idea how much it makes a year. In an article on the AFP, Pierre Mallevays, then senior manager of business consultancy Savigny Partners, said that “a brand like Cardin does not increase [in value] like a normal brand because it is entirely based on license revenues." While Cardin spoke of meetings with investors, he ended up not selling the brand.
So why did Cardin chase money to the detriment of his brand? He inadvertently answered this question while defending his strategy: "I don't want to end up like Balenciaga and die without a nickel -- then, 20 years after I'm dead, see others make a fortune from my name."