New York

Pierre Cardin, dress with vinyl boots, gloves, and Halo hat, 1968, gelatin silver print, 10 × 6 1⁄2"

Pierre Cardin, dress with vinyl boots, gloves, and Halo hat, 1968, gelatin silver print, 10 × 6 1⁄2"

“Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion”

Ninety-seven-year-old Pierre Cardin is fashion’s first mogul; his name evokes the epitome of French chic the world over, though he’s Italian by birth. His story is one of both creative and commercial prowess: After spending his youth honing his craft working under Jeanne Paquin, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Christian Dior, Cardin opened his own shop in 1950 and was soon lauded as Paris’s finest couturier of suits. Believing that all women should be able to afford smart, well-made clothes, he debuted a ready-to-wear collection in 1959—a vulgarity his peers deemed unthinkable until they, out of economic necessity, followed his lead. In fashion, “democratize” is synonymous with “capitalize,” and Cardin did both with aplomb. By the late ’60s, having produced the mod and space-age designs for both men and women that would become his signature looks, he became the first designer to sell his logo, allowing it to grace everything from perfume to housewares to socks and other common goods. He would design furniture, lamps, hotels, and an airplane. Ubiquity was part of his sum-total vision: “Thanks to my licenses,” he proudly proclaimed, “I can dress Cardin, eat Cardin, dwell Cardin, sleep Cardin, and travel Cardin!”

At the Brooklyn Museum, “Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion” celebrates his varied and prolific career with 170 garments, accessories, and objects chiefly borrowed from his personal musée, handily leading viewers through his career arc. One thread to follow: the continuous evolution of his endlessly impeccable silhouettes. Some of the earliest on view include the vermilion wool twill suit designed for Jacqueline Kennedy in 1956 that helped her play to perfection the role of gracious yet self-possessed wife of a president-to-be. The jacket of his bénitier-back ensemble from the following year shows greater daring, cut so its fabric cascades in an elegant swag from the wearer’s shoulders, giving an otherwise gracious shape a theatrical touch.

Cardin always struck a balance between experimentation and refinement. The suits and bodysuits comprising his unisex Cosmocorps collections of the mid-’60s display a militaristic spiff inside sleek, minimal lines, brightened by an occasional pop of color. His oversize vinyl eyeglasses and stiff pendulum necklaces of 1970 made the most modish look insectile. The Parabolic designs he produced for decades—think hoop skirts placed around the neck, wrist, or shoulder—wobbled and bounced as a wearer walked, infusing movement with a kind of atomic agitation. In one such design, his utterly fantastic Butterfly cocktail dress from 1993, two parabolas meet at a metal brooch at the center of a minidress in silver Lurex, as though tracing the path of electrons orbiting a nucleus. Although his ultramodern aesthetics may not have proven as prophetic as he’d intended, they’re still genuinely far out.

For all its delight, however, “Future Fashion” offers regrettably little in the way of scholarship, which leaves its overall tone feeling somewhat closer to sales pitch than survey. The couturier’s genius is treated as a foregone conclusion, even where evidence thereof isn’t altogether apparent to a contemporary eye. (One wall text notes that his Parabolic dresses were “designed to be seen in 360 degrees,” but don’t all couturiers think in the round?) The catalogue’s images, though beguiling, are largely archival, many taken from fashion shoots, and the volume’s sole text is an interview with le maître by the museum’s senior curator of fashion and material culture, Matthew Yokobosky, who asks Cardin every right question, but in return receives only terse, often self-aggrandizing replies. Regarding the founding of his theater, Espace Cardin: “This allowed me to become a true patron and to present myself as a key figure in this history of Parisian cultural life.” While ego surely fuels success, it rarely enables a clear-eyed accounting of one’s artistic achievements. It’s a shame that a man so devoted to the supremacy of style doesn’t materialize here with a bit more dimension.