Of the dozen or more docs-about-designers to have circulated over the past two decades, only a couple could honestly qualify as anything more than basic brand extension/ego massage: 2018's McQueen and 2019's long-suppressed Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections, both of which emerged after their subjects had passed, allowing their makers to go beyond the usual authorised treatment. Completed before Pierre Cardin's death late last year, House of Cardin isn't anything like as probing - it opens with five full minutes of pro-celebrity gushing, and the first person directors P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes interview is brand Cardin's current head of communications - but it retains a playful, surfacey appeal that keeps it watchable. The big revelation here for me was biographical: that a fashion magnate so closely associated with Paris was actually raised in Italy, born Pietro Cardin in 1922 before he and his family were driven out by the Blackshirts. The Cardin we're introduced to has a Zelig-like gift for timing, forever seeming to land in the right spot at the right moment. Upon arrival in Paris, his first assignment for the House of Paquin was assisting Jean Cocteau with costumes for La Belle et la Bete; a transfer to Christian Dior saw Cardin helping to oversee the New Look. When he opened his own studio, it was amid the youthquake of the 1960s - allowing Cardin to identify (and tap) a market that wasn't being especially well served by the pricey likes of Chanel and Dior. One of the film's strengths is that, while cooing at each season's new designs, it keeps at least half an eye (as a canny businessman like Cardin surely did) on the wider world - developments not just in fashion, but film, music, politics, at one point even space travel.
If you're just here for archive footage of Paris in its louche post-War pomp, you'll be well served. We get something like the skinny on the generally gay Cardin's four-year affair with Jeanne Moreau, initiated after the designer collaborated with Jacques Demy on the costumes for La Baie des Anges - as one interviewee frames it, "if you're going to go straight for someone, why wouldn't it be Moreau?" - and many minutes of those wondrously casual 1970s TV interviews where there always seems to be a lit cigarette in an ashtray, and a 65% chance of an offcolour remark. Unlike the tyrannical godhead Saint Laurent (with whom he admits to having a frosty professional relationship), Cardin presents as a jovial, adaptable old cove - Truffaut-ish in middle age, a little Ken Loach-like in later life - who quickly realised there were advantages in opening up haute couture to the masses. The film gets more substantive whenever it troubles to ask why its subject was so fabulous, circling around the idea that Cardin was an outlier within what was then a sternly traditional field, someone who pushed at boundaries and erased any borders. (Did his childhood displacement have something to do with that?) He pushed through the idea of all-male catwalk shows, previously frowned upon by fashion heads as the exclusive preserve of homosexuals; he also claims to have been at the forefront of recruiting non-Caucasian models, a boast backed up by celebrity interviewees Jenny Shimizu and Naomi Campbell.
This material might have an air of retrospectively imposed wokeness, but no: Ebersole and Hughes have the footage of the young Cardin walking the catwalk while modelling his own creations, in an effort to alleviate some of the industry stigma, and anybody prepared to hand Jean Paul Gaultier (another guest star) one of his first breaks in the Seventies was surely thinking bigger than the usual boxes and labels. Even Philippe Starck, with whom Cardin clashed during a short-lived furniture collaboration ("Cardin is a capitalist, I am a communist"), admits the pair found common ground in a desire to change the world for the better; they just disagreed about the way to effectuate that change, that's all. Cardin does seem to have spent a large swathe of his career doing the thing most likely to have pissed off those blackshirts, right down to covering his menswear in brightly coloured shapes and stripes. (If you're somehow not yet convinced that our most prominent corporate figureheads are more often than not driven by long-held grudges, consider the notionally joky anecdote Gaultier relays about the time Cardin was barred from entering the chic Parisian bistro Maxim's, a hotspot the designer subsequently bought up.) At 97 minutes, it's not devoid of puffery and peacocking - a plug for Pierre's pianist nephew plays like pure contractual obligation, and there's the outrageous hubris (unthinkable in any field other than fashion) of turning the Great Wall of China into a catwalk - but you also get a choice Alice Cooper tale about Omar Sharif's Rolls-Royce being trashed by an unruly crowd at the Espace Cardin, the designer's short-lived personal playhouse. Hard not to make something engaging out of what was clearly an interesting, varied creative life.
House of Cardin is now available to rent via YouTube and Google Play.