Mere moments into P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes’ House of Cardin, a prominent talking head suggests that “there’s no one on the planet who won’t know that name [Cardin]” a hyperbolic statement, to which my response was “who on Earth is Pierre Cardin”? I was struck by the revelation that I might be the worst possible person on staff to partake in this film. My knowledge of fashion, branding, and the fashion industry is pretty pitiful, consisting entirely of the knowledge that the bigger the name is the more expensive the material; Dolce needing the Gabbana side of the equation and all that jazz. Hell, my wardrobe has a number of Kirkland Brand shirts in it. They were on sale, and they fit, and the color is nice. Sue me.
But maybe this actually makes me the ideal candidate to review this deep, and laudatory to the point of propagandistic, dive into the life and career of Pierre Cardin. For those as oblivious as I am, Pierre Cardin is the prolific designer and head of the titular Cardin fashion house. House of Cardin is very much a standard talking head documentary, meaning you can expect a lot of archival footage, interviews (contemporary and historical), and a heaping dose of praise.
As an outsider to this world, I will admit it was cool to recognize Cardin’s influence on many facets of the world. Some of the more obvious touches, such as footage of The Beatles discussing their adoration for Cardin, feel like an excellent baseline to appreciating the large-scale reach that the Italian-French fashion designer has. Ditto for his over use of a diverse models, which clearly helped diversify the industry. For me, the turning point was the discussion on how Cardin changed eye-wear, and branding. Rarely does the thematic of “he’s an enigmatic genius” feel like a truth. Here, it does; a testament to just how influential Pierre Cardin probably is.
At times, however, the interviews so ardently diffuse praise atop many of Cardin’s accomplishments, they begin to feel disingenuous. For example, in one interview, a prominent figure describes Cardin’s work with such an amorous tone, you’d think that one of Cardin’s outfits solved world hunger, cured cancer, solved systemic racism, or most likely, some combination of all three. Listening to someone suggest that a fashion designers’ work is modern, but with a hint of warmth that belies an Italian heritage, is the fashion world equivalent to having to hear about the nuances between the two seasonal IPAs at an upscale brewery.
Which ultimately makes House of Cardin feel like a solid documentary that falls flat and simultaneously feels forgettable. Merely listing the many accomplishments that the avant-garde designer has is the film’s strongest part, while the attempts to humanize these accomplishments turn out to be irritants. Suggesting that Pierre Cardin revolutionized eye-wear? Plausible. Suggesting that Pierre Cardin saved the Chinese economy in the 80s, and simultaneously the Chinese people from being trapped inside a colorless world, all while a saccharine score blares? Maybe less so. At the very least, the shot of Mayrse Gaspard atop the Great Wall in her colorful dress as the only colour element of black and white shot a la Schindler’s List, is a ridiculous ten seconds in this film.
For Ebersole and Hughes’ film, this suggests something slightly ironic. If Cardin’s work is actually as warm as the aforementioned interview suggests, then it’s extremely funny that the documentary about him is the opposite—cold, but chic. House of Cardin is filled some wonderful montages, in particular, the first five minutes are electric. It’s an extremely well put together film, blending its various formats together with aplomb. But I’m already starting to forget the film, and I just watched it. The best compliment I can give House of Cardin is that I am now very curious to learn more about Cardin’s design philosophy. The faintest praise I can give the film is exactly the same.