Post-Cardin From India

Post-Cardin From India

The story of Indian fashion going abroad starts with Pierre Cardin, says design guru Rajeev Sethi as part of this obituary 

It is early evening on December 29 when news of the 98-year-old Pierre Cardin, famed Italy born French designer, couturier, entrepreneur par excellence passing away surges on notifications. Later that evening, some members of the Indian media get a message from Rajeev Sethi, India’s foremost design guru and founder of Asian Heritage Foundation. He notes how Cardin played a huge role in “positioning Indian textiles on the international stage” and why it mattered.

Among those who receive that message is this writer. Sethi’s reach out evinces infectious interest as requests for interviews and first person accounts stack up by next morning. Not only is the passing of Cardin a sad moment for Sethi personally, it is also a loss for anyone in awe of the brand diversification and licensing, the promise of stretching the arc of design from architecture to orthopedic mattresses, from cigars to wigs, couture to spectacles.

And there is something else.

It is the unexpected discovery of an “Indian” angle, Sethi’s message feels like a chewy bone for us news hounds. Not only did Cardin have a bit of Indian fashion history, with his inventive and (then) visionary use of Indian textiles but also the narrator of this “exclusive” angle, Rajeev Sethi, has unique stature and is an exceptional design thinker.

So before we can write it, the story is written. Before we can rush to Sethi’s Asian Heritage Foundation for a “conversation”, elements of the “exclusive” have been broken down and shared among journalists of a certain flock.

Now, we must return to our writing desks and spin the same story in different ways.


Photo: Rajeev Sethi’s collection, Asian Heritage Foundation

(L-R) Rajeev Sethi with Pierre Cardin.

Pierre Cardin and India


Today, two days after Cardin’s passing, with long, fond obituaries in all major publications across the world, the who’s who of global fashion expressing why his death burns a deep hole in how designers must think and act, why fashion and commerce share a co-dependent Freudian relationship, Indian newspapers too have their own little story. Each article that has appeared in the Indian press so far is expressed through Sethi, and while the ubiquity of his quotes is expected, it pushes fashion writers to wonder why Cardin mattered the way he did.

Sethi is conflicted whether what he says in memoriam of the late designer will be blurred with personal flashbacks. He does not want a digression towards anecdotes from his life so he must separate his life from the obituary of his former and “only boss.” The man who was a mentor, as important in shaping his early design thinking, as were Pupul Jayakar and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, cultural luminaries of post-Independence India.

In 1967, recalls Sethi, Cardin was invited by the Handloom and Handicrafts Export Corporation of India, because “Jayakar thought it was important to expose the international fashion world to the incredible variety of handlooms in our country.” Indian fashion then was a sum total of garage boutiques. While Cardin and Sethi (who was studying history in St Stephen’s College, Delhi) met in 1967, they did not start working together then. Cardin took a treasure of textiles from India, designed and tailored them into globally relevant clothes and brought them back for a show at the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi. Audiences were spellbound by what he had made from our ubiquitous weaves.

It was only in 1969 when Sethi, a keen painter and designer by karma and mindset, went to Paris on a scholarship from the French government and could show his sketches to Cardin that the mentorship began. Cardin saw Sethi’s work and took him into his fold, to design in the Cardin atelier. He gave him an apartment, extending opportunities of travel to Lake Como or Milan, to build, think, believe and evolve. All the while secretly hiding away the “Indian” in his atelier lest people figured out that another future collection inspired by India was in the making. Sethi’s well-known Boudin chair (see photo) was among the creations Cardin admired.


Photo: Rajeev Sethi Collection, Asian Heritage Foundation

Sethi seated on the Boudin chair.

A day after Cardin passed away, the large central table in Sethi’s library in Mehrauli is strewn with the fashion sketches he made while working with Cardin—sari blouses, blousons, sari-inspired drapes, gowns, short and long dresses, flowy, fitted. Pulled out after 50 years, resting so far in a red leather file. One of those dresses made it to the cover of Elle France from the Cardin atelier.

“I was completely awestruck by Pierre’s breaking of rules. Especially as an architect. He understood the structure of fabric. He was able to create fabulous forms based on his innate knowledge on how to cut and shape a fabric. In India, he insisted on getting us to look at wool and tussar together to make it a thicker fabric,” says Sethi.

Cardin’s brief and almost forgotten (in his international resumes) India-inspired creations, though were a milestone in the journey of Indian textiles to the world. “The story of Indian fashion abroad starts with Pierre Cardin,” says Sethi showing us swatches of silks, resist printed crepes, from Cardin’s two Indian collections—the second was a capsule few years later after 1967 that became a part of a larger collection shown in Paris. Cardin would visit India again in the Nineties, inspiring other ideas and designers.


Photo: Rajeev Sethi’s collection, Asian Heritage Foundation

Rajeev Sethi at his office in Delhi.

Rajeev Sethi on Cardin


What did Cardin look like?

RS: Oh, always immaculately dressed and elegant. He was never in casuals.

What was he like as a person?

Extraordinarily talented. He saw fashion through the prism of commerce.

So was he a good boss?

He gave me great opportunities of learning that shaped my skills. He was at his peak already then in the late Sixties and worked on interdisciplinary design. From theatre to cars and the rest. I was only reinforcing my passion, seeing it through someone else and making it come real. He bought an entire theatre and called it Espace Pierre Cardin. I was the Indian maison he put in charge of this Laboratory of Ideas. It led to IDLI that we formed here—Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Ideas.


Photo: AFP

An archival image from 1977, showing Cardin dress a model for the presentation of his Autumn/Winter 1977-78 collection.

What was he like in temperament?

Oh, he could be really admonishing if he did not approve of something. He would teach you in his absolutely ruthless way. Would tell a person to get out of his hair but would come back to tell you what worked. Ideas were not generated in his atelier because you were generating them; they were generated by the ethos. We were talking creative and cultural industries then.

What did Indians think of him? 

Pupul Jayakar liked him, as did Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

What about his influence on Indian fashion designers?

Well, Cardin coined the term India Modern and showed how couture worthy Indian fabrics could be used to create prêt in an avant-garde way. Prêt-a-porter was really his thing; His genius was to position the real strength of India’s textiles in a way that nobody could understand. Whereas in India even later, designers continued to emphasise the bridal.

Didn’t Cardin’s strategies of diversification and licensing his brand and business to everything from pens to perfumes dilute his unique design work?

Yes, but he did not understand fashion or design when delinked from the commerce. And he was laughing his way to the bank anyway….


Life and Times 

Pierre Cardin was born on July 2, 1922, in San Biagio di Callalta Italy. He would apprentice with a tailor in Vichy, France, when he was just 14. During the Second World War, he worked for the Red Cross, and after the war, he had stints at French couture houses Paquin and Schiaparelli, before joining Dior in 1947 as the head of its tailoring atelier. The memorable Bar Jacket, for instance, a lead piece in Dior’s post-war revolutionary New Look was a Cardin creation.

Two years later, he would start his own atelier and the rest is fashion history and business magic. Before the licensing empire Cardin built from clothes to architecture, theatre, cars, home décor to the famous Parisian restaurant Maxim, Cardin’s fashion mirrored his awe for architectural and geometric forms. The iconic Bubble Dress was a result of his fascination for the bubble. In the Sixties, Cardin made news for Space Age clothes, created in collaboration with Andre Courrèges. Short shift dresses in bright colours, PVC bonnets and gloves, the use of colour blocking, dresses with cutouts and belts, some designed like kimonos with geometric sleeves could describe Pierre Cardin fashion. Lots of “Maxi coats and mini dresses” from 1968 as terms it.


Photo: Pierre Guillaud / AFP

Three models display (L to R) almond-green, red, and violet stiff geometric wool coats presented with archer-style caps 22 July 1991 in Paris for Pierre Cardin 1991/92 Fall/Winter haute-couture collection.

Books, documentary films, exhibitions at the Met in New York and other museums across the world, and a fully dedicated Pierre Cardin museum in Paris, that opened in 2006—layer the nearly 100-year-old story of a man who could look into the future and find a place for himself.

Now as he becomes the past, and tributes pour in from across the world, China and India find mention only as countries he visited. That he was the visionary architect of India Modern, the first to create pret from couture worthy textiles, or that there is a photo of Sonia Gandhi, of Italian origin, currently the President of the Congress party with Cardin is an India story.

A tiny but textured tale that is our “Post-Cardin” from India for Rodrigo Basilicati Cardin, the heir of the deceased designer who will now head the House of Cardin.

Banner: French designer Pierre Cardin photographed in 2006 at his fashion space in Saint-Ouen. Francois Guillot / AFP