Pierre Cardin passed away on December 30, 2020 aged 98. The iconic French designer was the father of avant-garde fashion, known for his forward-thinking, space-age designs with clean, curved lines and big, bold, beautiful colours. Inspired by the growing interest in space travel and the jet age, from the 1960’s onwards his designs set the fashion world alight. But it wasn’t just the runways of fashion shows which Cardin created iconic looks for.
Born near Treviso in northern Italy, Cardin moved to France when he was just 2 years old as his parents attempted to escape fascism. At the age of 14 he worked as a clothier’s apprentice and began to learn the basics of fashion design and construction.
He moved to Paris in 1945 to study architecture and began working with fashion house Paquin before becoming Christian Dior’s tailleure atelier in 1947 and finally founding his own fashion house in 1950.
Cardin’s first foray in to cabin crew couture came when he created striking designs for Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), worn between 1966 to 1971. The legendary fawn coloured look for summer and moss green for the winter consisted of a short, easy fitting ‘A’ line tunic, a stunning traditional dupatta headdress and slim-line trousers that were immediately dubbed ‘PIA Pyjamas’. The trousers became an instant hit, so much so that fashion-conscious females across Pakistan all began to copy the look. So iconic was the look at the time, the whole uniform singlehandedly helped make PIA stand out on the international market.
Impressed by the modern and stylish looks Cardin had created for PIA, Aristotle Onassis – the new owner of Greece’s national carrier Olympic Airways, tasked the French designer to create a whole new wardrobe for his staff. Introduced in 1969 the unique and futuristic look was inspired by the growing space travel trends of the late 1960s. Pieces included a mini dress, statement cape and iconic bonnet hat. And while the uniform may have only graced the airlines aisles until 1971 – replaced by Greece’s own leading designer Yannis Tseklenis, the look quickly became the trademark of Olympic and one of the most iconic in the carriers history.
Cardin had now become the go-to man when it came to futuristic designs for the jet age and in 1968 French carrier Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) chose Cardin to create the airlines most avant-garde look to date in an attempt to rejuvenate the airline’s style. Looks were offered in the UTA’s house colours of navy blue with hunter green accents, but also in a soft pink with white details. Cardin’s signature was a circular pocket on all the uniforms as a nod to his lifelong obsession with geometrical design. In classic French style, all of the looks were finished with a quality hosiery. The designs would adorn the airlines flight attendants until 1973.
Cardin now moved away from the aviation world, instead creating apparel for NASA in 1970 and later redesigning the ‘Barong Tagalog’ the national costume of the Philippines. He did however create a new look for Malev Hungarian Airlines in 1980 to coincide with the introduction of a new onboard ‘Comfort Class’ and a refreshing of the carriers product.
But in July 1988 he was once again called up by a major airline looking to revitalise its image. Air China had been established in July 1988 as a result of the Chinese government splitting the operating divisions of Civil Administration of China (CAAC Airlines) in to six separate carriers. To make their airline stand out from the rest, management at Air China looked to Pierre Cardin to create an iconic look for its cabin staff. The attire, which included knee-length skirts, marked a symbolic breakthrough for women’s fashion in the People’s Republic of China since, at the time, women were required to wear demure, blue nylon trousers that did not reveal their legs to uphold puritan socialist principles. These stunning new sapphire coloured outfits changed the stereotype of the Chinese for the rest of the world.
Cardin’s next foray in to flight attendant fashion came in May 2005, when Air India was looking at giving itself a makeover to position itself as an airline that kept up with the changing styles and trends of the early noughties.
Some of India’s top designers – J J Walia, RitBeri, Satya Paul and Tarun Tahiliani had all put forward presentations of their new looks with Cardin being on the judging panel, offering tips and suggestions, as well as helping to make the final decision on the winning appeal.
However, all did not go to plan with the judging process and rolling out of the new look. Ever a stickler for perfection Cardin asked the designers on three separate occasions to make numerous changes as he was “not totally happy” with the looks presented to him and the Air India board.
The whole saga would drag on until March 2009 when Air India finalised Delhi-based Ritu Beri’s design for their female staff’s attire and Pierre Cardin designing suits for the male staff.
Pierre Cardin’s legacy is immense, not only for his incredible designs within the fashion world, but also for creating some of the most iconic and instantly recognisable cabin crew uniforms in our aviation world. Cardin once famously said: “The clothes that I prefer are those I invent for a life that doesn’t exist yet – the world of tomorrow” and his futuristic creations for Pakistan International, Olympic Airways and UTA did just that!
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