Written by: Patrick Howard | August 27th, 2020
House of Cardin (P. David Ebersole/Todd Hughes, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.
The world of high-end fashion has always been an enigma to me, for reasons I can’t fully explain. One could be that I grew up in a Midwestern household that saw the practicality of clothes through and through and tossed their artisanal purpose in the bin. Whenever I saw these beautiful, celestial-like women and men on television, walking down a narrow walkway, wearing the most abstract and otherworldly costumes, I would retort with a not-at-al-arrogant chortle and change the channel. I just didn’t get it. I was too wrapped up in the notion that most of the lavish designs on display at fashion shows were not made for an average Joe like myself but for the elite and their respective checkbooks.
House of Cardin is the perfect film to dissipate any apprehensions I may have had about the art of fashion and its place on metropolitan streets and the day-to-day lives of you and me. The documentary follows the landmark career of one designer, Pierre Cardin. Most credible figures of the fashion world would consider Cardin a true legend. Look up the word “pioneer” and you’ll see a picture of Cardin’s face next to it. In the 1960s, he was the first French designer to introduce ready-to-wear collections for women and men. In the following decades, the name “Pierre Cardin” transcended the man himself, and you could find it on just about everything: cologne, furniture, cars and airplanes.
Would I call House of Cardin the complete portrait of the man? No. I can’t say most critics would, either. There are definitely some crucial brush strokes in Cardin’s story that are lighter than they should be. You could chalk that up to the directors respecting their 98-year-old subject, so his goodwill remains intact. An individual as big as Cardin can’t exist without controversial positives and negatives. The character failings of Cardin don’t need to be depicted in a salacious news package like what you’d find on TMZ, but it would’ve certainly humanized the man.
We bear witness to the familiar tropes and iconography of the fashion industry: runways, larger-than-life designer clothes, and the accompanying designer. All of this would be enough to dissuade the average disinterested viewer, but the documentary doesn’t stop there. The onslaught of unabashed praise towards Cardin from his peers is unmerciful, but the man is finally allowed to speak when the film is in desperate need of him. Cardin explains his love for modernity and how he pushed his art form so he could see it on the streets of France and then the rest of the world. The clothes he designed are of their time, and timeless, simultaneously. You may not be able to see yourself wearing the outfits, but you understand why Cardin made the decisions he made and the lasting impact they left on popular culture.