I was once having dinner with a friend on a deserted terrace in Port-la-Galère, a posh enclave on the French Riviera, when a Franco-Japanese couple sitting at the next table struck up a conversation. The man was gushing about how lucky our generation was to have access to so much culture on the TV, whereas in his youth there was hardly anything and he grew up with his ears peeled to the radio. I retorted that it was more a question of intellectual independence than of programming. As we cordially agreed to disagree, he jotted down his address: ‘If you’re ever looking for work, come and see me!’ The note was signed: Pierre Cardin.
Back in Paris, I remembered the note. As soon as I showed up at the reception, I was escorted to a glass door. “Monsieur Cardin” was receiving the appointments lined up for the day. A dozen people, whom I was soon going to meet socially, were waiting their turn, everyone more or less anxious.
At first, he took me for someone else and sent me to the store manager as a salesman (a job I am least suited for). Sometime later, as he was making rounds of his haute couture store, he recognized me, apologized, and took me to the top floor, to his house photographer’s studio. “I’d like to introduce you to this young man, show him the ropes!” From then on, I reported only to the two of them.
An additional office was set up next to a black-and-white film developer. Michel Boutefeu had come from the SIPA agency’s lab round the corner. He quickly taught me the basics. We were producing black-and-white prints less than an hour after the photos were taken.
Fashion shows, still lifes, architecture, and Monsieur Cardin’s every deed and gesture: between Maxim’s de Paris, La Residence Maxim’s, the Espace Pierre Cardin, restaurants, visits from famous clients, and the latest line of products and licenses, we had no idle moment from morning until often late into the night. All this is documented in the House of Cardin archives. Copyrights did not apply.
One day, the personnel manager asked me to start clocking in. I had always refused to insert the card with my name into the clock, which seemed to obliterate it down to the last second. I agreed on the condition of getting a set of keys so I could clock in at night and be paid nightly rates. He shook his head. We never spoke of it again.
Pierre Cardin always received visitors in the late afternoon, seated behind his desk. Those who sought an “audience,” whether with business propositions, design projects, or for personal reasons, filed in and out without any preordained hierarchy. Licensing directors cut through the line.
No one liked paydays, which always put Cardin in a volatile mood. He signed each check, one by one, and never skipped on a promise, advance, or raise. He was against advertising: “I am the advertisement,” he would say. It was a matter of organizing events to be covered by the media, without spending a dime.
He brought the first Chinese fashion models to pose in the Champs Elysées, among them Shi Kai who became a star of the House of Cardin.
As soon as I arrived, I discovered the paparazzi culture. It was October 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was talking nuclear arms control with François Mitterrand at the Elysée while Raisa Gorbacheva was going to pay a visit to two fashion designers, Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint-Laurent. Whoever was her first stop would have the run of the press. As the Cardin buildings were located near the Elysée, we were always on top of the latest rumors. From our dormer windows we could see everything. At each official visit, snipers would be poised on rooftops, within earshot. The news came: we were going to be the first stop, in twenty minutes. Reporters flocked at the entrance, pleading their way in with arguments, cards, and promises. The plan was that, after ten minutes of shooting, I would sneak out the back door with Patrick Robert’s films (a seasoned SIPA reporter) and our own. If one of my images was up to the snuff, it would get published. To my great surprise, when I opened the small door onto the media frenzy, some brawny types were lurking outside eager to get a piece of me. After I refused to sell them the film rolls, they tried to help themselves. My years doing biathlons allowed me to outrun them on the three hundred meters that separated me from SIPA. And thus I landed my first publication in the field.
After a short stint in the army, I returned to rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré and, from one day to the next, took over as the house photographer.
Cardin showed little regard for photography. Avedon had come to take his portrait at the Residence Maxim’s: reporters swarmed around the American celebrity, without paying any attention to the model. Cardin was annoyed and cut the session short. “Why are they so obsessed with this photographer: all he does is press a button!” However, introducing myself as Cardin’s photographer in New York in 1985 did open a lot of doors.
The man’s self-reliance made a lasting impression on me. Sometimes he could be a stubborn tyrant, other times showed himself to be generous and brilliant. I was first struck by a parallel between our defects and our qualities. His manifested themselves without warning, in an offbeat way. One of my fondest memories is of an attempt to show him my images. He cut me off abruptly: “You will excuse me, this just gave me an idea; I must jot it down.” He grabbed a pencil and paper and at lightning speed sketched two dozen women’s outfits: his hand moved with astonishing speed, as if the silhouettes were about to escape the sketchpad.
If you wanted to propose an idea, you’d better hint at it obliquely rather than present it head-on. Later, he would come around to share it with you as if it were his own. What I cultivated in my relationship with Cardin, and which had begun to take root already when I was a teenager, was intellectual and material self-reliance, which governed every impulse and every decision.
This entailed other limitations: nothing was outsourced. Cardin models did their own hair and dressed themselves, from the fashion show to the photo shoot. In 1987, I had already identified the studios frequented by the big fashion labels, which I would later be in touch with, and took the initiative to rent one of them rather than tinkering as usual in the street or on the premises. Things got really ugly and I had to call on the boss to arbitrate. Tension ran high, especially during a new collection launch, and you could cut the air with a knife. Cardin got very annoyed with me: this was a first. I offered him the choice between giving me proper working conditions or finding another photographer. I’d gone too far. Furious, he asked how I dared and if knew who I was talking to. I wouldn’t budge, and that was the clincher. I left the room, slamming the glass door, which somehow failed to shatter. The whole floor froze with astonishment. I started packing. Shortly afterwards Cardin came knocking on the closed door of my office, then went next door to his first assistant, Sergio Altieri. “Have you seen the kid?,” he asked. Altieri replied with embarrassment that I was dead set on moving out. “He was furious,” Cardin confirmed.
I got my pink slip in the mail: I was being dismissed for “outright insubordination.”
A few days later, I came to officially bid him farewell. Cardin spoke in a very friendly manner: “I have always protected you, even despite the pressure, but this time it’s different. You’re not cut out to have a boss, you’re a free spirit like me, but beware, before you go out on your own, you may still have to deal with authority. I wish you best of luck.” Two weeks later, I was hired by Pin-Up Studios.
Whenever we ran into each other afterward, he seemed happy to see me again, always calling me “young man” or “kid,” no matter how old I was, and boasted that everything I knew I had learned from him. I took his portrait again in 1991 or 1992, at my own request. I came alone, without an assistant. He gave me a free hand and was very cooperative. It was a very nice moment.
By Claude Iverné
Claude Iverné is a French photographer, winner of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award in 2015, and founder of the association Elnour, which promotes Sudanese photography worldwide.