Can the sweep of a signature—shapes repeated daily from childhood—lead the eye to visions? Take the name Pierre Cardin. The P contains a parabola and the C is a circle left unclosed. Look at the work of Pierre Cardin. It’s Euclidean. Inspired by the lacquered geometries of Art Deco, the rounded surfaces of postwar plastics, the orbital paths of planets and the bubble helmets of space suits, this couturier curved off into his own final frontier: the future. With his Op Art logo, his Pop Art colors and his miniskirted race for space, Cardin—along with André Courrèges and Mary Quant—fueled the 1960s liftoff. His passion for prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) and his unbridled global licensing of products at all price points (more than 850 over time) meant that almost anyone could partake of Pierre Cardin’s vision.
Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion
Through Jan. 5, 2020
Still, five decades on, a number of generations may not know what made Cardin’s name in the first place. In an exhibition that opened on July 20, exactly 50 years since the Apollo 11 moon landing, the Brooklyn Museum’s “Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion” positions the 97-year-old designer historically, while emphasizing a creative energy that is as entrepreneurial as it is artistic.
Matthew Yokobosky, the museum’s senior curator of fashion and material culture, begins by reminding us that the so-French Cardin (he bought the Belle Époque landmark Maxim’s in 1981) is actually not French at all, but was born in Italy in 1922. “I am Venetian,” Cardin says in a video homage made for the show. His family moved to Saint-Étienne, France, when he was 2, and at 18 he left home to apprentice with a tailor in Vichy. At 22, Cardin trekked north to Paris and found work at Maison Paquin, next at Schiaparelli, and then at the House of Dior, where he worked on the legendary “New Look” collection of 1947.
In 1950 Cardin left Dior to found his own house, but he was still under the spell of his elders. A boxy red-wool suit from 1957, worn on public occasions by the young Jackie Kennedy, is very Chanel, though the roll of its collar is pure Cardin. A caramel wool suit from 1957, the year Cardin became a member of the Paris couture, shows the continuing influence of Dior, his love of metaphorical silhouettes. The dropping U of the jacket’s draped back—variously called the “Lasso-Back” or “Eye of the Needle”—in retrospect qualifies as one of Cardin’s first parabolas. Two years later, in 1959, he shocked his peers in the couture by creating a ready-to-wear collection—clothes for the middle class. Again, visionary.
The jolt of the show comes when you walk into the main gallery and meet Cardin’s “Cosmocorps”—space-capsule shifts for women, lean zippered suits (and jumpsuits) for men. The look was launched in 1964 and dominated Cardin’s design through 1967, distilling the decade’s space-odyssey sensibility. The star of this section, the 1966 “Target” minidress, is a white wool crepe, more tube than shift, emblazoned with red and orange bands circling a black bull’s-eye. Its piecing of perfect circles within a larger swath of fabric is a mindbend of seam work. Yves Saint Laurent had done something like it a year earlier, in 1965—his Mondrian dress—but that was squares and right angles, infinitely easier to achieve. Cardin was upping the ante.
Mr. Yokobosky has organized a loosely chronological, thematically tight and often witty exhibition of over 170 objects. His section on outer space not only shows Cardin’s influence on the uniforms in television’s “Star Trek,” but includes clips of space-travel movies from 1902 and 1936 that place the designer in a long line of future-philes. Cardin’s “kinetic fashion” of the late ’60s and early ’70s, inspired by the mobiles of Alexander Calder, is intriguing. Hanging sleeves, slit tunics, dresses layered with full-length loops, all worn over black bodysuits—the model spins and her outfit flies. Fierce was Cardin’s embrace of industrial design, a desire for coherent surroundings we see here in watches, clocks, radios and light fixtures. This passion also worked its way onto women’s torsos, in the form of abstract metal collars that gleam like the grille of a sports car.
In the 1990s, by stretching fabric across flexible plastic and metal hoops, Cardin began to place perfect rings and parabolas at various angles to the body—or orbiting it. A 1991 evening ensemble in slinky black jersey, encircled just above the bust by a broad ring covered in the same jersey, is paired with a black cartwheel hat of even larger diameter: The two planes create a celestial temple that shades the face and shoulders. More often, however, the hooped silhouettes are too much. Smaller rings sprouting from broad shoulders look like action-hero exaggeration. And gowns from the ’90s and after 2000, tiered with Jane Jetson hoops or subsumed in humongous ruffles, are cumbersome. Space means room to move. Cardin’s sportswear of the ’60s was the gift. It’s still as fresh as a first step on the moon.
—Ms. Jacobs is the Arts Intel Report editor for the weekly newsletter Air Mail.
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