French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, hailed for his visionary creations but also for bringing stylish clothes to the masses, died Tuesday aged 98, his family told AFP. Cardin, who was born to a low-income family in northern Italy but became a France-based fashion superstar, died in a hospital in Neuilly in the west of Paris.

From apprentice to global empire

Cardin was born into poverty on July 2, 1922, near Venice in northern Italy. His family emigrated to France when he was a child, and he grew up in the dour French industrial town of Saint Etienne. At the age of 17 he was apprenticed to a tailor in Vichy where he soon specialised in women’s suits.

Moving to Paris in 1945, he designed the mesmerising sets and costumes for the film "Beauty and the Beast" with poet, artist and director Jean Cocteau in 1947. After a stint with Christian Dior, he had already set up his own fashion label in 1950. He quickly established a name as an innovator, creating the now legendary bubble dress in 1954.

He also broke new ground commercially, ruffling feathers in the fashion establishment for producing a ready-to-wear collection for the Paris department store Printemps. Moreover, Pierre Cardin was one of the first in fashion to develop a large-scale licensing business which ensured the distribution of its branded products - as diverse as ties, cigarettes, perfumes and mineral water - throughout the world.

1,000 licences and franchises

A forerunner of globalization, Pierre Cardin bet very early on Asia to develop his licenses: he set foot in China in 1978, becoming one of the first foreign investors to establish himself in this market and also the first Western fashion designer to show its creations on the catwalk in Beijing in 1979.

In his heyday, Cardin boasted of having some 1,000 licences and franchises, from fashion and food to cigarettes and furniture, which generated hundreds of millions in annual sales and made him a household name around the world.

“Textbook case”

But the much used and franchised Cardin brand later showed signs of wear.

Ubiquity has killed the desirability of the brand. With this infinite number of licenses, it is the quality value that has suffered. Cardin was found in any product, anywhere in the world, says AFP Eric Briones, co-founder of the Paris School of Luxury fashion school.

Its license model taken to the extreme has even become a textbook case, studied in marketing under the neologism of "cardinization".

Briones stresses the schizophrenic dimension of the business: as much as Pierre Cardin as a designer was avant-garde and modernist, as much as the style of the licensed products was bourgeois, reassuring, far from his couture experiments.

In 2009, the house had sold part of its empire in China (that is to say about thirty textile and accessories licenses) to partners Chinese for 200 million euros. But in 2011, when he put his fashion label up for sale although it failed to sell.

In 2018, Pierre Cardin’s fortune was valued at 600 million euros, according to the annual ranking established by Forbes.