To find Pierre Cardin, I had to visit a construction site in the tiny village of Lacoste in Provence. The legendary fashion designer has purchased a vast array of buildings there over the past decade, and, the locals advised me, he was taking a hands-on approach to their reconstruction. His acquisitions now number more than 40, the most famous being the château of the notorious 18th-century libertine the Marquis de Sade.
So one sunny morning the summer before last, I strolled down a cobbled laneway, the Rue Basse, peering into doorways and windows, observing that the charming stone facades of the village now concealed spartan modern interiors.
Sure enough, inside one crumbling edifice supported by metal poles and billowing with dust, I found Monsieur Cardin at work. In that setting, there was no mistaking the shock of Warhol-esque white hair and signature black designer frames. Although in his late 80s, he looked youthful in a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and he was helping two workmen move a scarlet sofa, a Cardin original, shaped like a giant potato chip.
To my surprise, when I introduced myself as a writer interested in the Marquis de Sade, Cardin shook my hand and offered to show me around the building, which he was decorating himself as a guesthouse. "Upstairs is finished!" he enthused. Once again defying his years, he hoisted himself across a gap, hovering for a second, long enough that I felt compelled to put my arms underneath him in case he fell, then treated me to the grand tour.
At first blush, renovating a village might seem an ambitious late-life project even for a legend of Parisian haute couture, whose career highlights include helping design the costumes for Jean Cocteau's 1946 "Beauty and the Beast," introducing the "bubble dress" in 1954, bringing prêt-à-porter into Parisian department stores in 1959 and inventing Space Age fashions worn by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the 1960s. As early as 1974 a Time magazine cover story in Europe lauded his ability to leap from the world of fashion to design entire physical "environments," describing him as a "shrewd fantasist who has tacked his name onto just about anything that can be nailed, glued, baked, molded, bolted, braced, bottled, opened, shut, pushed or pulled. . . ." He was the first fashion designer to license his name and it has appeared on everything from watches to cars, airplanes, toilet accessories, perfumes and cigarettes.Each room had a different color theme—vibrantly bright orange, purple, green—and was filled with his own furniture in bold, lacquered shapes. The windows of the former mansion looked over the verdant Lubéron valley, across to the hilltop village of Bonnieux made famous by Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence." "But of course, Lacoste is the most beautiful village in France," Cardin said. It was hard to disagree.
Since his arrival in Lacoste in 2001, Pierre Cardin has done his best to convert this outpost 25 miles east of Avignon into a "Saint-Tropez of culture," opening gallery spaces, a cafe-restaurant, a grocery store and an array of renovated guesthouses and apartments that will begin taking guests this summer. The cornerstone of his vision is the annual Lacoste Festival, held every July in memory of the Marquis de Sade, who was himself a maverick of the arts. Best known today for his rabidly violent sexual tomes like "Justine" and "The 120 Days of Sodom," Sade was also a passionate theater lover, and in the early 1770s would produce plays in the medieval château that crowns the village, with a troupe of thespians from Paris.Cardin has often boasted that he could live his life coming into contact with only Cardin products. (There are more than 800 licenses in more than 140 countries.) In that sense, re-crafting a Provençal village is hardly a stretch. "I have created a world," he told me. "Whether you like it or not, that's another matter!"
Attending one of the performances of Cardin's festival is a vivid theatrical experience. As the stars come out, so do the fashionistas from Paris and the Riviera, who stroll up the cobblestone roads and past the floodlit château. Sade's old quarry has been converted into a spectacular amphitheater. Giant blocks of hewn stone flank the entrance like an Egyptian temple; inside, models in sheath dresses serve Maxim's champagne, Cardin's own label.
The festival repertoire is unpredictable. This year, from July 15, productions will include Carmina Burana, performed by the National Opera of Ukraine-Lviv, a modern French musical about Voltaire, an homage to the singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, and a concert by Chico and the Gypsies, the group of Gipsy Kings co-founder Chico Bouchikhi. And Cardin himself is ubiquitous throughout the festival, attending rehearsals and entertaining VIPs on the sun-dappled terrace of his village boîte, the Café de Sade.
Not everyone in Lacoste has been thrilled by Cardin's new vision. His accelerating real-estate grab raised the ire of the left-leaning villagers, who had a Communist mayor for five decades after World War II. They vocally objected that his many acquisitions—Cardin often bought houses at up to triple market rate, even when they were in decay or ruins—were depopulating the village and stripping its rustic Provençal character. Accusing him of behaving like an arrogant feudal seigneur along the lines of Sade himself, many locals boycotted his cafe, boulangerie and souvenir store, all to the delight of visiting French newspaper and television reporters.
By 2009, it seemed as if a glum resignation had finally set in amongst the old Socialists. Then, at the end of that year, Cardin announced that he was creating a "sculptural golf course" in the valley below Bonnieux on over 100 acres of fallow fields, and the outrage flared anew. Le golf was to be organically maintained and dotted with monumental modern sculptures, to attract year-round tourist traffic. But farmers accused Cardin of robbing the Lubéron of agricultural lands. Environmentalists charged him with wasting Provence's precious water resources.
Aesthetes thought the whole concept ghastly. ("Look at the Lubéron!" says Martha Shearer, a sculptor living in Lacoste. "It's so beautiful as it is! We don't need a golf course.") Opposition came to a head last July 14—Bastille Day—when as many as 60 farmers on tractors, some bearing pitchforks, converged on Lacoste on the festival's opening night. In a PR gesture worthy of José Bové, the farmer who famously dismantled a McDonald's restaurant in southern France in 1999, the protesters blockaded the quarry-theater just as the well-heeled audience was arriving for the premiere of a new musical Cardin had commissioned, "Casanova." Cardin sallied forth to meet the protesters, and vowed to hear their objections the next day if the show was allowed to proceed. He then agreed to cancel le golf.
Today, the ongoing struggle between feisty villagers and a multimillionaire is fascinating to behold. "Lacoste is the last extant gentrification process in Provence," says Bradbury Kuett, an American writer who has lived in Provence for 15 years. "The rest of Provence was already gentrified in the 1990s. It's now little more than a bourgeois theme park. But it's all still in process in Lacoste. There's a tension and an energy there that you just don't get in more famous places like Gordes."
Most Americans might assume that Cardin, who turns 89 on July 2, has been resting on his fashion laurels and the huge income from his licenses, but in France, he maintains a high profile as a patron of the arts, at least amongst an older generation of connoisseurs. The major remodel of Lacoste is one small part of his busy program. In Paris, he produces shows at the Espace Pierre Cardin, a theater complex near the Champs-Elysées. Cabaret is performed at Maxim's de Paris, the venerable belle époque restaurant Cardin purchased in 1981, with a new Art Nouveau Museum upstairs. In Venice, where Cardin was born, he owns Ca'Brigadin, a sumptuous palazzo for performance auditions that was, coincidentally, the home of another infamous 18th-century literary celebrity, Giacomo Casanova. Cardin has begun his own literary prize, the Casanova Award. The old iconoclast has never accepted boundaries. "People criticize me because I do everything," he says. "I don't understand why I should limit myself to design. It's ridiculous!"
“I have created a world. Whether you like it or not, that's another matter”
To learn the latest twists in the saga of Lacoste, I met Cardin again—this time in Paris. Since the 1960s, his main office has overlooked the Elysée Palace, the president's residence, on the swank Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. In this inner sanctum, Cardin is at the center of a whirlwind of activity. A Russian TV crew is packing up; Greek TV is about to arrive. Our meeting is interrupted when he has to pop out for 10 minutes to deal with "the Brazilians." He is about to head to São Paulo for a week, he explains, to show off his new line and an array of vintage outfits. Visits to Azerbaijan and China are in the works. Cardin clearly relishes the attention. The conversation leaps from one continent to the next. Then we settle down to discuss the village. "Lacoste is an authentic place, because it hasn't been transformed by modern times," he says. "Now I have hotels there, I have apartments, I have four châteaux. In 10 years, I've transformed the village!"
When I bring up his setback with the "sculptural golf course," he swats the memory away. "I was disgusted," he says. "So I said, fine, if you don't want it, I'll go somewhere else! I have other projects!" To illustrate, he hands me a lavish prospectus for an almost 1,000-foot-high edifice called the Palais Lumière, the Light Palace, which he plans to build outside Venice. It appears more in the style of Dubai than Italy: Triple glass towers are linked by six giant discs and contain 1,200 apartments, restaurants, boutiques, swimming pools and a helicopter landing pad. It is surrounded by rotund maisons champignons, "mushroom houses," of Cardin's design, and fitted, of course, with sleek Cardin furniture (which he prefers to call "utilitarian sculptures"). Even the people in the drawings are wearing futuristic Cardin clothes.
Downstairs, I realize that Cardin owns much of the real estate around the palace and has turned it into his stores. Most prominent is the Pierre Cardin fashion boutique on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Cardin has never stopped designing clothes for private clients, and last fall, he showed his first line in a decade at Fashion Week in Paris and New York. The boutique is almost empty, but an attendant named Jean confides that Prince recently bought up a lot and Lady Gaga wore Cardin in a 2010 video shoot.
The next afternoon, I'm back in Lacoste, in the same renovated mansion on the Rue Basse where I first met Cardin two years ago. But this time, the guesthouse is ready for occupancy—it's called La Demeure de Sade, the Sade Residence. I'm installed in a room of rich olive-green stucco, with a V-shape, lime-green armoire and a glossy black desk. I throw open the shuttered windows and gaze across the tiled rooftops toward Mont Ventoux. It's like a fantasy of Provence, the vineyards and rugged hills bathed in warm spring sunshine.
The first tourists of the season are wandering its three cobbled lanes in a daze, delighted to have found such a postcard-perfect village. I follow the winding route up past the residences of the Savannah College of Art and Design, which maintains a study-abroad center here (and which guarantees that the streets ring with American-accented English for much of the year) to the Château Sade, which still stands in half-ruined splendor. The castle was sacked by revolutionaries in 1792. Cardin was permitted by French law to renovate only the interior, leaving it with a haunted aspect. In homage to the infamous former resident, Cardin erected a bronze statue of Sade, using the only known authentic portrait. It depicts the Marquis's head inside a cage, to evoke his fate as a martyr to the freedom of expression. After several narrow escapes from police raids, Sade was finally arrested inside the château in 1777 and taken away in chains. He spent most of his remaining life imprisoned in the Bastille and Charenton mental asylum for his violent sexual outpourings, which later led a psychiatrist to coin the term "sadism."
Today, the private château is squarely on the French literary map, although many of the visitors who arrive have only a hazy idea of Sade's bizarre life story. After Cardin erected the statue, locals were worried Lacoste would become some sort of Sade mecca. "At first, we thought it would bring in the bondage crowd," laughs one artist who has lived here since the 1990s. "What if the village became a pilgrimage spot for weirdos? Luckily that hasn't happened."
The next morning, I was given a grand tour by Fabienne Fillioux, the elegant Provençal director of Cardin's festival office. Carrying a purse full of keys, she opens up a seemingly endless number of gallery spaces and accommodations, including two more guesthouses, the Résidence Donatien, named after Sade (Donatien was his given name), and La Demeure de L'Étang, and what seemed like two dozen two-bedroom apartments, including the Maisons Justine and Juliette, named after the most notorious of Sade's pornographic classics. "These were all ruins when Monsieur Cardin bought them," she says, adding that there is now space to accommodate 200 people. "He has redone everything, everything!" Each chamber is decorated with the same fluorescent palette—"Monsieur Cardin's colors," Fillioux says. (Some villagers showed their disdain for the interior-design choices. "Lacoste is Europe's biggest furniture warehouse," says one. "He's just dumping what he can't sell!" The word bricolage often crops up, evoking a makeshift, frivolous job.)
Most villagers expressed doubt that many of the residences will ever see guests, but Fillioux is adamant. "Everything will be ready for summer. Everything!"
Outside of festival time, Lacoste can seem dreamily quiet. Although 420 citizens are listed on the voting records of the commune, many of them live in the nearby countryside. The year-round number of residents is closer to 40. But it's surprising how vocal 40 people can be. On the Rue Basse, I immediately run into Jacques Truphemus, a retired mason who has lived in Lacoste all his life and is amongst the most implacable of Cardin opponents. "Just look at this village, it's like an opera set now!" he complains, waving his hand with a theatrical flourish.
His silver-haired wife, Colette, removes from the cupboard newspaper clippings about last year's revolt against the golf course ("Our opposition to Cardin has gotten stronger!" she chortles), then totters off to regale some passing French tourists about the designer's evils. Madame is a feisty lady. Last February she apparently interrupted a French TV interview with Cardin to deliver a sexual insult (villagers say she called him "un pédé," a queer). Elsewhere, even buying a bottle of wine leads inevitably to politics. I dropped by the vineyard of Yves Ronchi, a gnomelike figure whose silver whiskers and moustache make him look like a Provençal vigneron from Central Casting, and who is head of the Association for the Harmonious Development of Lacoste. "The whole village is turning into a Cardin Museum," he sighs. "There are no families, no children. The man is killing Lacoste!"
“Cardin invested 30 million euros in the village and they want to kill the golden goose”
But Cardin's supporters argue that it is the villagers who are actually doing the killing, by stymieing the fashion king's plans. "It's a narrow-minded peasant mentality," says one, who like all pro-Cardin residents spoke only on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from his neighbors. "A 'Jean de Florette' situation. Here's a Parisian who comes down to Provence to do something grand and they screw him over. This village wasn't working as it was! Cardin has invested 30 million euros in the place. And they're trying to kill the golden goose!"
"It's the ultimate Luddite situation," agrees another. "The Socialist villagers are doing everything they can to thwart Cardin's plans. But there's no industry here, the fields are empty. How can you be against tourism, which is the only possible way this region can survive?"
Lacoste remains fascinating because the battle lines are so clearly drawn. "For Cardin, life is all about money," Jacques Truphemus counters. "Many of the villagers couldn't resist his offers—especially the young people. So no more children will grow up here. But quality of life is more important than money. I grew up here. I'm happy here!"
While the saga of Lacoste has elements of a French farce, on a broader level, it's part of a classic 21st-century story. All over Provence, the flood of wealthy outsiders from Europe's chilly northern climes has pushed real-estate prices so high that many locals have had to move out. Renovated barnyards can sell for millions; the likes of John Malkovich and Ridley Scott can be spotted in and around Bonnieux. Absentee owners ensure that villages are crowded in summer and deserted in late fall through spring. And the social rift between the hard-bitten locals and the well-to-do arrivistes has echoes across the globe, from the Greek islands to Sydney's beach suburbs and the East Village of Manhattan, where long-standing communities try to retain their identities in the face of change.
But reports of Lacoste's demise may be premature. My last night in the village was a Saturday, so I visited a number of the art studios that have been carved from medieval cellars by local artists, many of them foreign-born. At a group reception, the village hall was elbow-to-elbow with guests from around Provence, and the air rang with French, German, English, Spanish and Swedish, all blurring into a modern Esperanto. Meanwhile, on the other side of the village, the boycott of Cardin's Café de Sade has ended and villagers were rubbing shoulders with stray tourists, the revelry continuing until 2 a.m.
As the doors finally closed, one 20-something son of a farmer gazed tipsily at the moonlit village square. "Sure, things are changing here," he mused philosophically, before staggering into the night. "But maybe a little change is not so bad." - WSJ
Written by: Tony Perrottet