An enigmatic figure in the fashion industry, but one whose output has an everlasting appeal, Pierre Cardin’s stylistic choices feel prescient. They also represent an individual who has sequestered his private life away from prying eyes, while cultivating a brand that is distinct and pushes forth a public persona of eccentricity and boundless ambition. House of Cardin serves as a means of exploring the brand which Cardin has fashioned, and how it reinforces the prolific designer as an auteur. But as a look at Cardin himself, the film feels stunted.
Clearly a vanity project authorized by someone who has maintained a life of luxury and prefers to keep his life outside of the spotlight a secret, House of Cardin is a toothless but still relatively interesting beginner’s guide to Pierre Cardin. Focused primarily on his successful endeavors inside and out of the fashion industry, the documentary offers an extended look at the idea of creating a brand and preserving it as the world around is constantly in a state of flux. Littered with interviews with some of fashion’s biggest names, as well as other famous stars like Sharon Stone, Dionne Warwick, and Alice Cooper, there is a lot of ego-boosting to wade through before finding the nuggets of compelling ideas. No matter how many people say great things about Cardin and his work, there’s a distance to the man himself that the film fails to narrow. This ultimately leaves the film feeling inconsequential, even with concepts that it easily attaches to Cardin.
The trouble with House of Cardin is that it doesn’t really have much of a thesis. It opens with talk of how Cardin’s private life is a mystery to many, but then moves immediately away from that and into his public-facing self. It’s less a biography and more of a career retrospective that feels disingenuous, at best. It plays the highlights, and despite a few extremely brief moments in his early life, much of the documentary places a further level of gloss on an already shiny exterior. There’s no real examination of any specific facet of his career, effectively declaring Pierre Cardin to be untouchable.
Now, whether Cardin is truly unassailable or not is one thing; how the film handles it is another. It feels like a lot of Cardin’s work is put in a bubble, separated from the outside world and therefore excluded from a critical perspective, as there is nothing within the bubble to immediately compare and use as reference. The film doesn’t take his work and put it in the context of his contemporaries, instead opting to treat it like a separate industry of its own making. It doesn’t place Cardin in the fashion industry, but instead looks at his works as components of his brand. Yet, even then the film simply identifies it as a strong brand without actually positioning it in the pantheon of commercial enterprises. Cardin is Cardin, and the documentary refuses to believe that any other external factors are worth exploring to explain why he is so distinct from the pack.
As an officially authorized biography of the iconic fashion designer, House of Cardin is still a substantial entry-point for those unaware of Cardin and his work. Clearly equipped with a unique style, the movie has plenty of imagery to gawk and drool over, simply reinforcing how influential and important Cardin’s work is in the industry. That being said, nothing is more depressing than watching a puff piece that omits key elements of any biography simply because the subject refuses to be candid about that. House of Cardin amounts to the kind of documentary that gets played in a museum exhibit that highlights career-defining moments in a succinct and easily digestible fashion. Perhaps it’s better to just go look at the work he’s done and form one’s own opinion than have it spoon fed by the creator and his followers.
The 2019 DOC NYC festival runs 11/8-11/15.