Pierre Cardin on banks and working at 89

Pierre Cardin waves after his fashion show in May 2011 In 2011 Pierre Cardin showed his new collection in Tianjin, China

French fashion designer Pierre Cardin is the last survivor of the heyday of Parisian haute couture in the 50s and 60s and, at the age of 89, he still controls a worldwide business empire.

Looking back, it occurs to me that I cannot remember a time when there was not Pierre Cardin.

When I became vaguely sentient in the late 60s, he was already long-established as a fashion designer, and I probably first saw his name and photographs of his models in newspapers lying around at home.

Today, a lot of the clothes seem utterly ludicrous - futuristic creations inspired by the Space Age which must have been a chore to wear.

But back then, everyone loved Pierre Cardin. He put the Beatles in their collar-less jackets, took high fashion to communist China and built a village of bubble-pods on the Cote d'Azur.

And here he is, sitting across from me in the dining room of the Sade cafe in the Provencal village of Lacoste.

I should make it clear that is not the "Sad" cafe - as in the Carson McCullers story - but the "Sad-uh" cafe, as in the sex-mad Marquis de Sade.

Pierre Cardin has bought the chateau of Lacoste which, 250 years ago, was where the aristocratic father of sadism began his priapic peregrinations.

Mr Cardin is not particularly interested in De Sade. He just adored the spot, which is why he has also bought up much of the surrounding village - causing major ructions among the locals. But that is another story.

Humble origins

So how does he look? Well, he is shorter than I expected, but hale. A slight stiffness in his movements, nothing serious.

But what I notice above all is that, for a fashion designer, he is actually quite scruffy.

A Pierre Cardin helmet-style hat from 1966 Pierre Cardin was famous for his Space Age creations

He is unshaven, his collar and tie are wonky, and he has chalk or something on his blazer.

At one point, his shirt pulls open to reveal a white, grizzled chest. This is not just age. Pierre Cardin's mind is bang on the button and his conversation is perfectly lucid.

No, it occurs to me that this is the real him - it is the simple peasant stock.

Because you have to remember Cardin's origins are very humble.

His father was an Italian labourer - his job was delivering ice - who came to France in the 20s fleeing Mussolini. Cardin was two at the time.

He tells me that he the was the last of 11 children and that his father was 60 when he was born. This means that the father was born in the early 1860s, when there was still a kingdom of Savoy and Nice belonged to the Italians.

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Cardin the younger came to Paris during World War II.

He was an exceptionally handsome young man. "My physique was what the times regarded as desirable," he says.

He began his career making costumes for the film-maker Jean Cocteau. Christian Dior took him under his wing and he launched his own label in 1950.

Our conversation takes us back to the golden years. How did he get on with the other great names like Yves Saint Laurent?

"They looked down on me, you know," he says. "I would invite them out, but they would never invite me back."

'Fashion for the people'

In 1959, Cardin courted their further contempt when he launched the first ever "pret-a-porter" (ready-to-wear) show for the mass market. Later he went into merchandising in a major way, with hundreds of Cardin franchises all over the world, many of them not exactly top-of-the-range.

But today he answers his critics with glee. "Look at me now, I am patron, artisan, proprietaire [owner, manager, craftsman]. Still! Every day I work at my designs, and I control every cent.

Pierre Cardin shirts on sale in Hanoi, Vietnam Pierre Cardin's clothes are not just for the wealthy

"All the others - even if they were alive - their names are now the property of big multi-nationals. They've been taken over.

"And then they accuse me of degrading the brand because there are cheap Cardin shops in India and China. But I know how much a bottle of perfume costs to make. It is nothing!

"I have called their bluff. I am the one who has really brought fashion to the people."

"When you were identified with the swinging 60s and hobnobbed with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, did you like the music?" I asked.

"Not at all, I preferred Ravel and Debussy."

"Did you ever take drugs?"

"No, I have never once smoked a cigarette."

"Is it true that you have never borrowed money from a bank?"

"Yes, I never wanted to and I never needed to. I have always paid for everything with my own money."

And so I bid farewell to this remarkable old man, with his flair and his passion and his fear of banks and his properties by the score.

There are two cars waiting by the cafe. His assistant gets into one, a spanking-new off-roader.

Pierre Cardin shuffles into the other, a battered Renault 5. Somehow it is fitting.

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