We find ourselves in Provence, comfortably seated at the Café de Sade, in the company of Pierre Cardin, 98 years old, owner of the property and still the active doyen of French fashion, and next to him, Simon Porte Jacquemus, 30 years old, young and at the top of the class, eagerly reclaiming the master’s influence. What brings them together, today and over time, is a willingness to create while living in worlds apart, with a rebellious ability to emancipate themselves by bypassing paths previously traced.
Worlds apart, both men are much like the high-perched Lacoste castle: A chiseled stone punctuation erected by the legendary Marquis de Sade, both a refuge and an eagle’s nest over the vast domain, dominating the scenery with breathtaking views of the Lubéron massif. Cardin purchased the property, along with a large part of the precipitous village clinging to the hillside. Today, when coming to greet us, he exited his lair driven by his chauffeur, as if crossing the corridors of time in a carriage: travelling from a medieval dungeon to the ultra-contemporary realm.
The confinement obliges, in these times of uncertainty, barrier gestures and distance; the men’s presence, almost side by side, literally demonstrates the link between the golden age of couture and the flickering torch of the future.
PAMELA GOLBIN: It’s rare to be with both the eldest and the youngest of fashion designers together conversing over a summer lunch...
PIERRE CARDIN: I used to be young too! I wasn’t born old. Let’s salute youth! And new creativity!
SIMON PORTE JACQUEMUS: Cheers to you!
PG: It’s unusual in Paris: you’re both independent, at the head of your own fashion houses.
PC: I always was. I never had a boss. I had the money to do it. I didn’t need help.
SPJ: For me, it was by choice. I maybe didn’t have the money but I also didn’t want to be a part of a big corporation. Cheques don’t interest me. I said no to all brands and financial proposals.
PG: For now?
SPJ: No, it’s a conscious choice. I love my freedom, I’m great like this. The biggest challenge for a designer is to stay free. I’ve always seen it as a vital independence.
PG: And this freedom always forces you to push the limits and open new doors?
PC: No, I actually opened prisons [laughing]. It’s a joke, of course, because I’m tributary to all the responsibilities that come with employing hundreds of people. I always kept the problems to myself. The joy, happiness and parties were for others.
SPJ: I’ve always shared positivity so that the energy of the brand shines on others. So I do understand.
PG: Is it hard to be both the creative force and CEO of a company?
PC: Yes, but some are capable of both, which is indeed my case [laughs].
SPJ: I agree, and it’s important to find a balance. In the morning, I take care of the financial responsibilities and my afternoons are dedicated to creation. We can’t live in a bubble all the time. You have to be in the real world.
PG: Are some artistic decisions made for financial reasons?
SPJ: No. Everything has to make sense without forgetting the human side to it. I’m not going to organise a show in three weeks just because I want to. I think about my team and the sustainability of what I do.
PG: How would you define success?
SPJ: I consider my team to be my biggest success. Being copied is also a modern form of success. When you are imitated by all the "fast fashion" brands, it means you have a signature style that people want to buy and wear.
PG: When you both started, did you think of a specific woman, or more of a universe?
PC: Neither to a woman nor a universe. Rather a shape, a volume. An idea, a silhouette. Wearable, mostly wearable.
SPJ: I often prefer to think of a general idea, a narrative or a story with a title, like Jean-Luc Godard with his film Le Mépris. It’s very French to tell a story and to stay close to very real characters. I've had an obsession with women since my youth, but it was linked to one woman in particular: my mum, who kept her maiden name, Jacquemus, and is at the heart of my brand.
PG: You recently launched menswear?
SPJ: Yes, because I also wanted to tell stories about men. At the beginning, womenswear came very easily, almost spontaneously. But for menswear, I needed more time to understand what story I wanted to tell.
PG: Would you say you are competitive? Do you have a favourite activity or sport?
PC: I don’t. For me it’s work, work, work.
SPJ: It’s very modern to say that in English: work, work, work! We always say it within my team.
PG: Mr. Cardin, you just had a retrospective exhibition of your work at the Brooklyn Museum. What do you think about your designs being shown in museums?
PC: Well, firstly, it’s the recognition of my work, and also, it showed the how and the why behind becoming Pierre Cardin. It didn’t happen by chance, you know. It involves endless hours of work, stressful responsibility and a strong personality. You have to create your own personal identity.
PG: As for you, Simon, I know that you’re carefully keeping your collections.
SPJ: Yes, I've kept a duplicate of everything, plus the archives. It’s important, but much too soon to do an exhibition. I’m only 30. I don’t really think about it even if keeping them is, in a way, having it in mind. When I was younger, I dreamt of becoming a big couture designer, but today I just want to do things in a simple but beautiful way, to be aware of what’s going on around me while still remaining loyal and close to my clients. It’s my biggest goal and also my biggest satisfaction. I design my collections from A to Z, from a simple belt to a constructed dress or a coat. It is me who is behind everything in a sincere and honest way. That’s what makes me happy in my life.
PG: You stayed at one of Mr. Cardin’s famous homes, the Palais Bulles, conceived by the Hugarian architect Antii Lovag, in Théoule-sur-Mer [in the South of France]...
SPJ: It was amazing, a dream come true. In fact, I’ve been a fan of it for years. In my aesthetic, I don’t know how to explain it...this is one of my absolute favourite references.
PC: Oh yes, it’s a living sculpture. It’s magical.
PG: Were you surprised by its unique architectural volumes?
SPJ: It was absolutely perfect. There were even ceramics by Picasso! I’m obsessed with the work of Matisse and Picasso. It was furnished with so many iconic design pieces including a lamp that I really love. So many objects that I’m really fond of, and that also makes you feel good there.
PG: Can you tell us about the famous post-war dressmakers with whom you spent time?
PC: I knew [Christian] Dior before he founded his haute couture house, when he was still an antique dealer. He was rather shy.
PG: Contrary to Pierre Balmain, who was...
PC: He was a playboy!
PG: And Cristóbal Balenciaga?
PC: Yes, I knew him, but he was always very discreet, almost too much so.
SPJ: Monsieur Cardin, if I remember correctly, you told me that Monsieur Dior dreamt all his life of being Balenciaga.
PC: Exactly. He once told me, “I would have liked to be Balenciaga, always.”
PG: And Coco Chanel...
PC: Oh, I would prefer not to talk about her. She was jealous of me. I was extremely handsome, young and talented. And she was, well, of a certain age...
SPJ: Ah, jealousy in fashion, it’s very difficult.
PC: She would always say, “Who is this young man? What is his name?” Even if I had met her more than 20 times and we sat next to each other at every dinner party. Anyway, she would only say terrible things about people. [She was] jealous and mean...
SPJ: Everything I never want to be.
PC: ... But she did have a great sense of humour.
SPJ: When I was 20 and just starting out, I often got nasty looks at parties from the older generations. I always told myself that I would do the exact opposite and reach out to younger designers and support them, as I do with Ludovic [de Saint Sernin]. I refuse to spend my energy thinking that they will take my place. If I lose my edge, I only have myself to blame, and not a new designer who is hungry for success.
PC: What’s the situation in Paris? Are there any young people like you right now?
SPJ: I feel there have been a lot more interesting young designers recently. When I began 10 years ago, we were very few. Paris was a little asleep, but the situation has changed for the better and things are moving.
PG: Is a sense of camaraderie difficult in this industry?
PC: There has always been jealousy. André Courrèges and I were friends. He was really talented. Really talented!
SPJ: Yes, his drawings are beautiful! I love Courrèges too. He’s one of my biggest inspirations. Courrèges and you.
PC: What about his work inspired you?
SPJ: The ingenuity of his colours and shapes. His work was really primitive, kind of like Picasso. There is something naïve that spoke to me right away.
PC: He had style.
PG: For you, is it better to be fashionable or to have style?
PC: Having style, obviously! Style develops into a brand. Fashion is fleeting!
PG: Mr. Cardin, what advice would you give to Simon?
PC: To work in silence, and not to listen to others. Listen to your own conscience. If you count on others, you won’t succeed.
PG: Simon seems to have already achieved all of that.
PC: Yes, of course! But he has to keep going. Starting is the easy part.
SPJ: It’s only been 10 years!
PG: Simon, what question would you like to ask Mr. Cardin?
SPJ: Looking back, is there anything you would change?
PC: [singing Edith Piaf, “No Regrets”] No! No regrets!
SPJ: [laughing] I didn’t expect anything less from you, Monsieur Cardin!
PC: [singing] No! I will have no regrets!