More Than a Handkerchief: Pierre Cardin and His Filipino Legacy
Pierre Cardin (pronounced pi-air kar-dahn) was considered the father of Space Age style and pioneer of branding and licensing in the fashion industry. In the Philippines, he once dressed the rich and famous but was also a merchant to the masses.
Pierre Cardin died in France on December 29, 2020. He was 98. In 1939, at the age of 17, he tailored at a men’s shop in the city of Vichy where he learned the basics of dressmaking. His tailoring was interrupted by World War II, during which he decided to join the Red Cross. Work at the Red Cross made a significant impact on Cardin, such that he continued with humanitarian projects and supported numerous advocacies throughout his life.
After the War, Cardin decided to pursue his own path and opened a shop of his own in 1950. He was 28 at the time. He initially sold men’s suits, for which he gained a solid reputation for the structure and clean lines of the suits he made.
Cardin made history in 1959 by becoming the first name designer who produced ready-to-wear collections for women.
Bill Blass and Pierre Cardin (Right) at the Esquire Men’s Fashion Show in New York, circa 1960
Pierre Cardin and the Birth of the Space Age Look
Pierre Cardin was known by many honorifics, but the most prominent among them is being the Father of the Space Age style: sharp structures, shiny vinyls, helmets, and goggles. It was no coincidence that Cardin’s Space Age look gained popularity in the mid-1960s, the height of the Space Race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
Pierre Cardin's Space Age Looks
After the Americans’ successful Moon Landing in 1969, NASA commissioned Cardin to create his interpretation of the space suit. Much later in 1990, Cardin summarized his obsession with the avant-garde: “The clothes I prefer are those I invent for a life that does not yet exist.”
As the Space Age rocked the fashion world, Cardin moved to license his name along with his creations—from sunglasses to paper dresses—an unprecedented power move in the fashion industry.
“Pierre Cardin created fashion that was inspired by space travel in the '60s, together with Paco Rabanne and Andre Courreges. Like true Jetsons shit,” says Owen Maddela, former publisher of Esquire Philippines. “He was also the first designer to lend his name on things, like handkerchiefs.”
“The clothes I prefer are those I invent for a life that does not yet exist.”
For the Filipino masses, Pierre Cardin means a somewhat fancy handkerchief. Many Christmases in the ‘90s and 2000s, this writer also received dozens of these as exchange gifts at Christmas parties in school. But Cardin was much, much more than a piece of square cloth, especially in the Philippines.
Pierre Cardin’s Legacy in the Philippines
During the Martial Law years in the Philippines, Pierre Cardin opened a shop and a studio in Manila, which catered to the rich and famous.
“He had a studio here where a young Jean Paul Gaultier manned the shop,” says Maddela. That’s the same Gaultier, the French haute couture and prêt-à-porter fashion designer.
The Cardin studio in Manila was unlike all the other stores he opened around the world because it also made barong. It was a very bold and audacious move, considering it was the national costume of the Philippines.
According to Louise Edwards and Mina Roces (The Politics of Dress in Asia and the Americas), Cardin redesigned the barong tagalog in 1971 by opening the front, flaring the sleeves, and then removing the cufflinks. He also removed much of the embroidery and applied a tapering silhouette down the body. Cardin’s barong tagalog also had a thicker collar.
A Pierre Cardin-style Barong Tagalog
On the other hand, Filipino masses had access to Cardin’s ready-to-wear collections and accessories through department stores in Manila. The Pierre Cardin handkerchief was among the items most recognized by many.
Today, Cardin’s legacy has expanded from his Space Age experiments to include almost anything he could think of: pens, perfumes, wallets, fresh flowers, and even real estate. Many people believe Cardin’s licensing move and expansion to ventures other than fashion has muddled his brand.
But in a career that spanned 81 years, one thing was certain about Cardin: He defied traditions. He was a prophet of the 20th century and lived ahead of his time. In 2017, at the fine age of 95, he released a new collection. “I made this line for young people. It’s quite entertaining,” he said during the launch, as reported by the New York Times. It was a success. There are many things to describe Pierre Cardin, and irrelevant was not one of them.