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When Cars Met Couture

What Happened When the Inimitable Avant Garde Designer Pierre Cardin Tried His Hand At Car Design. 

Text by Rhiannon Hughes-Boatman

Internet rabbit holes – we’ve all been down them – but this has to be one of my favourites of late. As a trained automotive designer, I’ve always loved discovering little-known marques and concepts banished to obscurity, so finding out that Pierre Cardin had worked on not one, but 3 cars in his time was a veritable treasure trove.

Cardin was known as an Avant Garde master whose iconic Cannes bubble house was a hotbed of creative inspiration. He began his career as a tailor at Dior’s Avenue Montaigne Fashion house in 1946 but branched out on his own in 1950 making masks and costumes for the theatre. By 1954 Cardin’s bubble dresses had taken the world by storm, and he opened his first boutique in Paris, “Eve.” Like all the greats, Cardin’s career was marked by firsts; he was the first to display a designer’s logo on couture garments, he transitioned to ready to wear and became the first to combine mini and maxi skirts. Cardin was fascinated by geometric shapes and space age design, an obsession that led him to become the first civilian to try on Buzz Aldrin’s moonwalk suit in 1971. His revolutionary “mod chic” designs were known for combining the contrasting geometric shapes that captivated him- circles and straight lines, free flowing skirts with structured tops, mini dresses with ankle-length pieces, long pom pom panels with fringe that swayed with the body, and slits with batwing sleeves – his designs consistently broke the “rules”. Unlike his first employer Dior, Cardin was known for completely disregarding the female form, instead, designing what he found interesting. He was an integral part of the arts and culture scene in Paris throughout his career and founded the Espace Cardin to promote new artistic talents from musicians to painters.

His interdisciplinary approach to design and disregard for the “rules” did not stop here. Cardin developed 13 basic design themes that could be applied to products, each instantly recognisable and carrying his name and logo. It is no surprise then that he did what “to most Paris fashion designers…is rank heresy” and signed a contract with the American Motor Corporation. In 1972, the automaker began incorporating Cardin’s design and starting in 1973 4,152 AMC Javelins received his badging and bold interior, featuring a multi stripe pattern in Chinese red, plum white and silver over the standard black background. His specification, true to form, ignored a lot of the rules by treating the seats as one unit and running a contiguous stripe design throughout the interior, even integrating the headliner and door cards into one blanket design. He also curated a set of exterior colours that complimented the interior pattern: TransAm Red, Snow White, Stardust Silver, Diamond Blue, Wild Plum and a special order option of Midnight Black.

Pierre Cardin AMC Javelin

In 1974 Sbarro, a small, Swiss, high-performance replica and sports car company, presented its latest creation: the Stash. The Stash was a three-seater improvement on the 1973 Sbarro SV1 (safety vehicle one) concept. The exterior follows the wedge trend of the time and features similar lines to the Dino 308 GT4, BMW M1 and De Tomaso Pantera. Cardin proposed his version of the Stash at the Salon de Paris in 1975. Like the Javelin, most of the changes were to the interior wherein the seats, carpets, dashboard and door cards bore his signature geometric stripes. Only 5 of the superbly good-looking cars were ever made but just one bore the Cardin name and design.

In the 1970s, especially in America, it was commonplace to upgrade high-volume vehicles, but Cardin decided to go one step further and in 1980 launched Pierre Cardin Automotive (PCA) with a mind to building radically redesigned Cadillacs. Some sources mention that Cardin had some input in a paint and trim package for the D-body Cadillacs, but PCA’s official launch was its Evolution I which was based on the E-body Cadillac Eldorado. The Evolution I paid homage to the first generation (1967) Eldorado with a lengthened front fascia giving the car the long sleek stance of the original car. True to his previous Automotive design forays, Cardin’s design utilised heavy linear elements. The grille and running boards relied on heavy horizontal lines, and the horizontal tail light strip was years ahead of its time. It borrowed elements from the Oldsmobile Tornado and featured modern, sculptural wing mirrors. Inside, personalization included luxurious English leather seats, door panels and a graphic designer’s dream of a dashboard all of which continued the linear theme that defined the exterior. Antique gold accents, a custom steering wheel, unique front and rear console, high-quality real wood trim, Sony TV + Quasar VCR, Sherwood audio equipment, optional minibar, 30-layers of hand applied paint, and wool carpeting went a long way to explaining the extortionate price tag. PCA set out to build 300 Evolution Is but all build sheets indicate around 100 units were created from 1981-1983, the last of which was a Hess & Eisenhardt custom convertible. As of 1984 PCA ceased to exist and there’s no doubt its demise was in part because of the eye-wateringly high price. A base Eldorado started at $17,550, the Evolution I started at $58,000 but fully equipped came in at $63,000, for context a well-equipped Mercedes-Benz 380 SEC went for less than $50,000.

Pierre Cardin was a visionary who didn’t care that licensing his name and in doing so diversifying and widening access might be seen as “cheapening his brand.” He cared about applying his design theory to as many areas as possible, including furniture (the bubble house was entirely furnished by his own designs), restaurants, food products and cosmetics. In the end, the extensive licencing became wildly incongruous and lead to the monetary demise of his brand but not before he left us with three of the most interesting automotive designs of all time. With his passing yesterday at 98, we say goodbye to an era-defining maverick whose inquisitive nature and uniquely free spirited approach to design left its mark in even the most far-flung corners of the design universe.

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