'Not yet senile' Pierre Cardin still empire-building at 87

PARIS, Feb 22, 2010 (AFP) -Pierre Cardin likes to talk about selling his multi-billion fashion empire, but though aged almost 88, he seems to have too many irons in the fire to contemplate retiring any time soon.

Pierre Cardin
Photo: AFP

Ushering three accountants out of his office -- across the road from the French president's -- the indefatigable Cardin leaps out of his chair and waves a tiny shiny designer-style metal box.

"It's a sewing kit, for travellers," a slightly dishevelled Cardin says in an interview ahead of publication of a new book on his career.

"I think it will bring in lots of money. After all, everyone needs to sew on a button from time to time."

The last active survivor of the great postwar Paris fashion houses, Cardin from his cluttered office runs one of the world's most successful fashion empires -- a conglomerate that even in this corporate age has remained under his single ownership and leadership for 60 years.

"I never had money to start with," he proudly insists. "My company grew with the profits I made."

Reviled on and off by many of his contemporaries for exploiting his name, allegedly demeaning high fashion, this son of poor Italian immigrant parents celebrates the 60th anniversary of his firm claiming to own licenses for 1,000-odd products sold under his name.

"I cover the entire world, except perhaps North Korea, and I could go there too if I chose," he says in his inimitably immodest way.

Estimated at 310 million euros in personal wealth in 2009 and ranked 97th of top French fortunes by economic magazine Challenges, Cardin's mixed-bag conglomerate includes Paris theatres, Maxim's restaurants, food and drink products, a new golf course, and, of course, fashion and other accessories.

"My latest toy (the sewing kit) is an act of creation," he goes on to say. "It's my name that brings in the cash."

One of the great visionary stylists of the 1960s, Cardin's commercial strategy was equally revolutionary. He was the first of the designers for the rich-and-famous to launch a ready-to-wear collection, the first to move into men's fashion -- and the first to sell his brand-name.

"Clothes are important, everyone has to dress," he muses. "It's like plants, like trees, you change your cover every season."

Cardin was also first to venture into China, India and Japan, respectively 30, 50 and 45 years ago.

"I was right to do all this," he says. "I very rarely advertise. My creation does it all."

Said to run the entire empire of 450 staff in Paris and 200,000 worldwide almost singlehandedly, and somewhat chaotically, Cardin has little time or favour for the current kings of couture.

"To know whether a designer's left a mark on fashion you need to close your eyes and think what they represent," he says. "Chanel left her little suit, Paco Rabanne's about metal. Courreges left a mark as did Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet, Pierre Cardin."

What about Dior's current creations under John Galliano? "It's all costume, theatrical costume," he says. "The entire fashion scene nowadays is nothing but costumes."

"Fashion is supposed to be wearable," adds Cardin, whose sole Paris boutique continues to offer space-age-like designs. "Women should be able to live a normal life in their clothes."

"Fashion and design are not the same. Fashion is what you can wear. Design can be unpleasant and unpopular but it's creative. So design is where the real value lies."

In July he plans one of his now rare catwalk shows, a sumptuous affair to mark the 60th anniversary of the brand.

In between time he also plans to launch a pouch for carrying golf balls, an idea connected to his new golf course near the Marquis de Sade's castle he owns in southern France.

"Why not give the rich something to spend their money on? Without them the world would stop.

"I'm hanging in, I'm not senile."

("Pierre Cardin, 60 years of innovation" by Jean-Pascal Hesse, hits booksheleves February 25.)by Claire Rosemberg

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