One of the American style forums currently has a prominent thread asking members to list what they think are the 50 greatest menswear brands of all time. Needless to say, some of its content could drive the reader to lobotomize himself, if the thread weren’t already doing it for him. I don’t have enough Vaseline in the house to name 50 greatest menswear brands, but I can confidently state the greatest, and explain why I am completely, unassailably right: Pierre Cardin.
No doubt a reader of this blog might expect me to name a famous tailor or shirtmaker, or one of the departed men’s emporia that my fellow Wardrobe denizens (no closet jokes please, we’ve made them all already) and I like to evoke so often. But the question as posed isn’t about the best makers, the most creative designers or the most visionary curator of a retail selection. Instead, the greatest menswear brand is that which has capitalized the most on its reputation, penetrated the world most thoroughly, and had the most influence, for better or for worse, on menswear, because brand greatness is not about actual or current skill in making or designing things, but about creating a construct, a brand, that is abstract from the maker or designer and then perpetuating itself. And Pierre Cardin has been the brand whose financial success, penetration of awareness and range of branded products every men’s designer since him, whether admitting it or not, has tried to emulate. And menswear indelibly bears his eccentrically logoed stamp, whether we like it or not.
Cardin is now 90. Starting a few years ago, he acceded to a sort of Grand Old Man status in the fashion world, with retrospectives and monographs on his forays into interior and furniture design. It’s a sort of valediction for an old man whose continued eccentricity no longer threatens the status quo of menswear fashion. Rewinding back to the early part of his career, we see a man who helped create the menswear brand, fashion section (and currently, there is little else). Like many other midcentury designers and couturiers, Cardin trained as a tailor, later spending a stint as head of the atelier at Christian Dior at the same period that designer launched the New Look. Cardin launched his own couture house with a bang in early the 1950s at a famous ball at the Palazzo Labia in Venice hosted by the dandy Carlos de Beistegui. Thence followed sallies and battles with the French fashion guilds for transgressions like unexpected moves into ready-to-wear and, by 1960, menswear. A favorite photo from the period is Cardin in front of his menswear models wearing a collarless crocodile 3/4 –length coat of his own design. The look was sharp, iconoclastic, unexpected and creative, words the Cardin name no longer often evokes. But at the time, that design stood for a new modernism and functionality, influencing the collarless suits the Beatles wore, famously attracting Cecil Beaton away from Savile Row, and paving the way to the sort of Space Age utopian fantasy later that decade that Cardin’s designs are famous for. In fact, Cardin did dystopia just as well – a 1970s publicity photo features A Clockwork Orange-style jumpsuits with a model who looks like Malcolm McDowell leering rapily.
Clearly by then, though, Cardin knew that collections didn’t need to have any relation to the commercial, having signed the first of the licenses that would make him one of the richest designers in the world. While monogrammed Gucci toilet paper is just a myth from the 1970s, Pierre Cardin actually did put his name on a signature toilet, along with almost anything else imaginable, from socks to calculators (sold together in the same gift pack). He created wardrobes for television characters, including John Steed in the 1967 series of The Avengers, and redesigned the national costume of the Philippines at its dictator’s invitation. Through his ownership of Maxim’s restaurant, he expanded into food and hospitality, opening a luxury hotel years before Bvlgari co-branded with Marriott and Turnbull & Asser gave its name to a theme room in some British country hotel. He showed in China and India decades ago, the first major designer ever to do so, long before all of today’s most prestigious menswear brands began scrambling to get their heavily logoed accessories into the hands of those growing markets’ thrusting nouveaux riches.
In the last several decades, of course, Cardin has been less relevant for his design than for his commercial prowess. The price to pay for ubiquity without creative control. Today’s brands may simply be a little less far along the curve in that degradation. Barneys used to remind customers that it was the first American store to sell Cardin in the 1960s and Armani in the 1970s, an apt juxtaposition. Now Armani has a wide sliding scale of different labels and sold his most widely available mall brand A/X for an enormous amount, supporting the empire of his more prestigious lines, including homewares and cafes. Armani can also focus on promoting his halo lines, the top boutique lines that shed prestige on the rest of a brand, so the world is treated to a man who looks like a deep-fried Cheeto in Simon Cowell’s T-shirt making disparaging comments about real tailors in order to sell factory-made clothing. For decades, Cardin has also had a halo line of sorts, vestigial though it is – his dusty flagship on Faubourg St-Honoré, which though empty of customers some years ago when I visited was full of boutique-only items, including shirts proudly labeled as being made in Argenton-sur-Creuse, which happens to be the home of the French Museum of Shirtmaking (and is located in an area that was a historical center of shirtmaking). Despite being a UN goodwill ambassador and a member of France’s Légion d’Honneur, Cardin’s name in fashion circles may seem as dated and embarrassing as the Tour Montparnasse. But today’s most prestigious brands are generally following his example, lining up lucrative licenses for eyewear and perfume before opening their flagship (as did Tom Ford), or diluting the initial quality of their debut collections by moving to cheaper contractors a year after all the press releases and adulation. No one brings down, prospectus supplement-like, a fluffy magazine article.
What does this have to do with this site, where Will and assiduous contributors like Storey and Pullen work indefatigably to relay new sources of classic clothing for the well-dressed reader? Well, to me, the exercise in “greatest brands” onanism serves as a reminder that there is no substitute for empiricism, for informed personal experience and evaluation. Any time that information about a shop/designer/maker/whatever is relayed from one person to another, whether that information is about an expensive established designer or about some ambitious yobbo making trousers in Naples, something is taken on perhaps misplaced faith and that, to me, is the essence of branding.
For a brand is hearsay, a brand is meta, a brand is reputation and supposition and lifestyle, branded hotel rooms and fragrances and bathroom slippers and a lazy slippery slope, a brand is being able to sell out and about reconciling the presumption of integrity with the monetization of putting your name on anything. On this topic, I begin to sound like Cardin in his famous tirade against jeans (“the destroyer! It must be stopped!”), and yet in his flagship shop on Faubourg St-Honoré, there they were, a selection of dark denim that might even have been Japanese, a testament to Mammon over (somewhat baffling) principles.
So in reaction to searching for greatest brands, I can only advise the reader to use his (or her, hi ladies) own experience, and if it is not feasible to gain your own firsthand experience, then use your own critical thinking abilities, your own esthetics and taste rather than accepting a picture of something pretty pinned to perfection on a mannequin or model as a sign of anything more than nice photography. But I know that many people visit clothing blogs to see a picture of something colorful and patterned on someone cute, with all the content of a short caption, before proceeding on with their day. So I apologize for a long post that asks you to think about clothes, instead of contemplating snapshots of Savile Row softcore.