Cardin’s innovation was across disciplines: Rajeev Sethi

Renowned designer Pierre Cardin, who died on Tuesday aged 98, was the first international designer to hold a fashion show in India – this was back in 1967 and it was held to a packed audience, which included the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, in the Ashoka hotel. HT spoke to Rajeev Sethi, designer and founder of Asian Heritage Foundation, who met Cardin around that time and went on to work in his atelier for three years between 1969-71. Read edited excerpts.

What was your first memory of meeting Pierre Cardin?

I think it’s extremely important that India knows that its journey in fashion internationally started because of Pierre Cardin. He bought a whole lot of things from the market and the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation of India Ltd in 1967. Pupul Jayakar, who was heading the HHEC at the time, invited him to the country. I went to audition as a model for a fashion show that he was doing at the Ashoka hotel, but that was just ostensibly because I carried with me all my sketches and paintings to show him. I didn’t model but he liked the drawings very much and asked me to work for him in Paris. That was a seminal show, and it was the first time we saw international fashion.

Tell us a bit about the work that you did with him

I got a scholarship from the French government to go to France, and since I had met Cardin earlier, I went to see him. I ended up working with him all of 1969, ’70 and ’71. I helped his atelier to set up his laboratoire d’idees or laboratory of ideas, where we were going into trans-disciplinary experiments and experiences and do (a lot in) theatre, culinary art, experiential exhibitions. It was like a circus. But this was before he bought the Theatre des Ambassadeurs on Avenue Gabriel and renamed it Espace Cardin (it opened in 1971 complete with a full-fledged theatre). He believed in the synergy of art, fashion and theatre. It had more to do with the lifestyle beyond the haute couture that Paris was known for. In 1970, he sent me back to India to collect items for an exhibition on India at Espace Cardin, called Des Indes Moderne. Eventually, the exhibition had works designed by me, including items of furniture.

What is the contribution that Pierre Cardin will be most remembered for?

By the time I got to Paris and joined him, he was already a global brand. What attracted me was that he was moving beyond fashion into things that touched life as a whole. He could link this kind of trans-disciplinary market with commerce. Of course, people had made perfumes but no one had made it at a scale that Cardin did. Branding idea is not new, but what you can do with branding, from the glamour industry, and take it to a more prêt-a-poter line, is his innovation. He said you could do all the things that Haute Couture does, and you could do it so bespoke that it could become even ready-to-wear. He was the first to break the dichotomy between the two, and he made high fashion think seriously about the fashion that goes out to more people.

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