P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes are documentary filmmakers and Pierre Cardin fans—but they never actually intended to make a documentary about the legendary designer.
“We collect Pierre Cardin, so we have furniture—we have all the sort of fun items like the backgammon set and glassware,” Ebersole tells Fortune.
“We were in Paris by chance with our last film, and we happened upon the Cardin museum. Then we went into the store and started talking to the guy who worked at the store about our obsession, and he said, ‘Oh, Mr. Cardin loves to meet people like you that really know all of his work.’ And we were like—there’s a Mr. Cardin?”
“We thought it was like one of those mythical names, right? Like Betty Crocker,” Hughes adds, laughing.
Instead, they realized “not only was there a man, but he was 95 years old, and he still goes to work every day, signs every check,” Ebersole says.
Now, about three years after the filmmakers first met Cardin, and about a year since it debuted on the festival circuit, their documentary House of Cardin is getting a virtual and limited theatrical release Friday, before it becomes available on demand on Sept. 15 to coincide with New York Fashion Week.
The documentary dives into Cardin’s history, from his origins as an haute couture designer in 1950s Paris to his expansion into ready-to-wear clothing for a global market and eventually, industrial design. The man himself, now 98, is featured via both archival footage and fresh interviews, alongside members of his inner circle, as well as a number of high-profile designers and celebrities, including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Alice Cooper, and Naomi Campbell.
“We asked [Naomi] because she was the only celebrity that we know of that wears vintage Cardin on the red carpet,” says Ebersole. “And of course we knew that he was so involved with diversifying the runway, and that’s one of her great causes.”
The filmmakers grew to view Cardin as something of a beloved uncle over the course of making the documentary. And as their subject watched them work, he grew increasingly relaxed, Hughes says.
The first day filming with Cardin involved a sit-down interview inside the restaurant Maxim’s, which is owned by the designer. His answers were so direct that the planned shoot was over in about half an hour, Ebersole says.
“Then he said to us, ‘Well, do you want to go upstairs?’ And our poor camera crew just had to grab cameras and follow, because when he goes, he goes,” Ebersole says. “He took us up to that Art Nouveau museum that was on the top floor of Maxim’s and walked us through his whole private collection.
“Working with him was very spontaneous,” he continues. “At his age, there are days when he’s up and days when he’s not. We’d come to Paris with two weeks free and just know, it’s going to be kind of at Mr. Cardin’s whim.”
Though the film is a fashion documentary, it also isn’t one, Hughes says, calling the sphere Cardin inhabits “expansive.”
“Even now it’s hard to tell people what it is,” Hughes says. “It’s a celebration of a life; it’s a celebration of creativity.”
And it was important to the filmmakers to also convey what was beneath Cardin’s work, as a way of preserving his legacy.
“Underneath each achievement or decision to do something that was outside of the norm was a [political act]…It’s not just about selling clothes,” Ebersole says. Cardin brought Japanese model Hiroko Matsumoto on to model his clothes at a time when couture houses weren’t known for diversity; he was also the first European designer to go to post Cultural Revolution China.
“‘Why should the world be shut down for some people and open for other people?’ And same idea for diversifying the runway—why should fashion and self-expression only be for rich white Frenchwomen?” Ebersole adds.
Though Cardin was able to make it to the world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last year, where he received a standing ovation, the film is now coming out for mass consumption during strange times. Thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, theatrical releases are a lot more limited (if theaters are even open), and many audiences are catching new releases on demand.
The fact that the documentary is being released under slightly different circumstances than the norm is somewhat fitting, the filmmakers say.
“[It] feels so Pierre Cardin,” Ebersole says. “We’re hoping it’s the right movie for the right moment.”
House of Cardin hits select theaters and also has a virtual theatrical release on Aug. 28. It will be available on demand Sept. 15.