A Tale of Family Intrigue and Inheritance

Designer Pierre Cardin died at 98 from Covid. An epic legal battle among 22 grandnieces and grandnephews claiming to be his heirs has ensued.

By Dana Thomas

French fashion designer Pierre Cardin liked to brag about all he had accomplished since he started his brand in 1950. When he welcomed a reporter into his studio at 27 Avenue de Marigny in 1999, he showed off big black-and-white photographs of his factory in France in the 1970s and pictures of him standing in Red Square with models in 1986; Cardin logo items produced by hundreds of licenses; and a catalog of his most famous futurist looks.

“All the couturiers were influenced by me,” he said. “Everyone knows Pierre Cardin.”

What he didn’t like to talk about was what would become of his company after he was gone. Indeed, three months before Cardin died in December 2020, at 98, after a bout of COVID-19, he told a Paris Match reporter: “After my death? I don’t think about it. I didn’t organize anything. NOTHING.”

That lack of organization has led to an epic legal battle among 22 of Cardin’s grandnieces and grandnephews who claim to be his heirs, as he never married or had children. His longtime business and life partner, André Oliver, died in 1993.

On one side of the fight is Rodrigo Basilicati-Cardin, the 52-year-old Italian grandson of Cardin’s older brother Erminio. (Pierre Cardin, né Pietro Cardini in 1922 near Treviso, Italy, was the youngest of 13.) Basilicati-Cardin — he annexed the Cardin name in 2018 — worked for his great-uncle for more than 20 years. Since 2020, he has been the general manager of the holding company, Pierre Cardin Evolution, and artistic director of the Pierre Cardin brand. On Monday night, he staged a Pierre Cardin fashion show at the French Communist Party headquarters in Paris.

Basilicati-Cardin insists that he is the rightful heir — the one designated by Cardin, per an unsigned, unregistered will — and his brother and sister support his claim. He wants to maintain ownership of the company and continue to serve as the head of its business and run the creative side.

In the other camp are 19 cousins from six other family branches, who want to sell the company and cash out. Four of these cousins, Patricia, Laurence, Régine and Marie-Christine (the granddaughters of Cardin’s sister, Giovanna Cardin), have filed lawsuits and criminal complaints against Basilicati-Cardin, accusing him of crimes, including elder abuse and forgery, all of which Basilicati-Cardin denies.

“It’s sad that such a storied house come to this,” said Cardin’s great-nephew Louis Cardin-Edwards, who worked in the Pierre Cardin studio for 20 years and was fired by Basilicati-Cardin days after Cardin’s death. “So inelegant.”

Cardin arrived as a toddler in France when his parents fled Benito Mussolini’s Italy, after World War I. The Cardini clan settled in Saint-Étienne, a small city in central France, and the name was shortened to Cardin.

Cardin studied architecture, but his love of fashion and tailoring was stronger. He arrived in Paris after World War II and worked for the Paquin and Schiaparelli couture houses before landing a studio job with a young designer named Christian Dior. Among the ensembles Cardin personally cut and sewed for Dior’s debut collection in February 1947 was Bar, a black-and-white hourglass suit that came to symbolize the house’s “New Look.”

Three years later, Cardin founded his namesake house. He made his reputation the following year when he designed 30 costumes for Carlos de Beistegui’s extravagant masquerade ball in Venice, Italy. In 1958, Cardin introduced menswear, which is still a strong business for the label, and he is credited with inventing the bubble dress, a fitted bodice with a full skirt pulled in at the knees.

During the space age and pop art movements of the 1960s, Cardin embraced futurism, turning out mod outfits in geometric shapes and bold colors. In 1970, he hired an 18-year-old Parisian named Jean Paul Gaultier as an assistant.

“Pierre Cardin invented things,” Gaultier said during an interview with The New York Times in 2018. “It was true modernity.”

Cardin was forward-looking in business too, selling in the untapped luxury markets of Japan in the 1950s, China in the 1970s and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. He became the king of licenses, slapping his logo onto everything from perfume to frying pans. In 1981, he bought Maxim’s, the art nouveau restaurant gem, and licensed that name as well.

In his spare time, Cardin bought property — a lot of it — including buildings and apartments near the Élysée Palace, where he had his company headquarters and home. He also owned a mill in Normandy, France; an apartment on New York City’s Fifth Avenue; the 13th-century Palazzo Ca’ Bragadin in Venice, where Casanova once lived; the 17th-century Chateau de Théoule and the avant-garde Palais Bulles on France’s Côte d’Azur; and the 11th-century Château de Lacoste, the Marquis de Sade’s former home in Provence, France, along with dozens of apartments and houses in the surrounding hilltop village. The inheritance of all of this, and more, is in question.

“I was surprised that the family would inherit because my uncle told me that he wanted the company to continue and not transmit it to his family,” said Cardin-Edwards, 39, who was the lone family member to work with Cardin in the studio. He is not an heir, though his mother, Marie-Christine, is, and she is among the four sisters suing. “My uncle said he didn’t understand the concept of family inheritance,” he said. “He was against it.”

But Cardin was also against dealing with the issue. “Every time we said, ‘Let’s go to the notary and put it down on paper,’ he canceled at the last minute,” Cardin-Edwards said. “He couldn’t imagine someone replacing him.”

Emmanuel Beffy, whom Cardin employed to oversee Asia licenses, real estate and cultural projects, concurred: “He didn’t want to hand over his power. He wanted to keep it until the end.”

Enter Basilicati-Cardin. Born and raised in Padua, Italy, he was a civil engineer by training when, at 25, he finally got to know his famous uncle at an art exhibition in Venice that Basilicati-Cardin had organized. “He said, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ and we spent two hours talking,” Basilicati-Cardin recalled during an interview with the Times. “Then he said, ‘Why don’t you live here, in my palazzo?’”

Cardin employed Basilicati-Cardin to oversee the Tuscan source that supplied Maxim’s mineral water and, later, several other companies based in Italy. In 2018, Cardin named Basilicati-Cardin the general manager of the holding company. It was then that Basilicati, as he was known, decided to add Cardin to his name. “I went to the Treviso town hall and did all the administrative procedures,” he told La Gazette Drouot.

While Basilicati-Cardin held an important title in the company, Jean-Louis Rivière, the lawyer representing the four sisters, said: “He didn’t have the right to sign a contract or sell anything. No power whatsoever.” Basilicati-Cardin said the arrangement was to prepare him for eventual takeover of the business.

That changed in late 2020. While gravely ill after a COVID-19 infection, Cardin gave Basilicati-Cardin power of attorney. Rivière described the document’s signature as “suspicious” since, he said, “Mr. Cardin was in a coma, or semi-coma, at the time.”

Not so, Basilicati-Cardin said: The document was signed by Cardin at home, before a notary and two doctors who attested to his mental competency.

Nevertheless, the Cardin sisters accused their cousin of elder abuse, fraud and breach of trust. The Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation earlier this year.

Since assuming control, Basilicati-Cardin has brought in the respected Paris Society hospitality group to revive Maxim’s — it will reopen at the end of October — and sold several of the Lacoste properties to the Savannah College of Art and Design, which has a campus in the village. He also fired Cardin-Edwards, whom he accused of theft in a police report.

At issue is a pair of scissors and one of Cardin’s Académie des Beaux-Arts jackets; he asked to be buried with them. Cardin-Edwards said that, with permission of the studio head, he took the jackets and two pairs of scissors to the hospital for Cardin to make his choice. Cardin-Edwards dropped off the selected ones at the funeral home and returned home with the others.

Basilicati-Cardin accused Cardin-Edwards of stealing the rejects and asserts that Cardin-Edwards said he would return them only if he received a raise and a promotion, an allegation Cardin-Edwards denies. Cardin-Edwards said he returned the jacket to the studio but kept the scissors.

“They were plain scissors, nothing special, and they didn’t belong to the company anyway,” he said. Nevertheless, Basilicati-Cardin fired him.

Cardin-Edwards was stunned by the charge and his ouster. He often spent vacations as a boy with Basilicati-Cardin at Cardin’s retreat in Théoule-sur-Mer — times he recalled as “perfect.”

“I gave 20 years to the house and was close with my uncle,” Cardin-Edwards said. “To be fired one day to the next and treated as a thief days after the death — it’s nearly indecent to behave like that.” Cardin-Edwards filed an unfair dismissal suit with the French labor court; it, too, is pending.

Most upsetting to the family is Basilicati-Cardin’s claim that he is Cardin’s sole heir. He said that Cardin’s wishes were detailed in a will dated Nov. 10, 2016, which Basilicati-Cardin said he discovered last year in Cardin’s apartment in Paris, just as heirs who are in favor of selling received an offer by French business group to buy the Cardin group for 800 million euros (about $847 million).

Because the will was not found during the original inventory of Cardin’s estate and, though initialed, was unsigned and never registered with French authorities, the four sisters charge that it is invalid. Beffy is skeptical, too: “Pierre Cardin always signed documents ‘Pierre Cardin,’ not with initials.”

In March, a judge ruled the will invalid, a decision Basilicati-Cardin has appealed. The Paris court of appeals will hear arguments Nov. 2 and is expected to rule by the end of the year.

“There are two possibilities of resolution,” Rivière said. “The Basilicati-Cardin will is canceled and my clients and their cousins are legitimized as heirs, or it is confirmed and he gets control of everything.”

To complicate matters, Beffy has another will by Cardin, from 2013. In it, Cardin stated that Beffy would receive the Norman manor, Marie-Christine Cardin-Edwards would get an apartment, and Beffy and Basilicati-Cardin would inherit all that is “movable,” meaning furniture, cars, jewelry, artwork and bank accounts. The document was signed and dated, but, Beffy said, “the notary didn’t register it.”

“I am now waiting to see what happens,” Beffy said.

And then there is the question of company ownership. At the time of his death, Cardin held 99.999% of the company. The remaining 0.001% is held by Basilicati-Cardin, who said that his great-aunt Giovanna, the mother of the four sisters suing him, signed the share to him a month before she died in 2000, at 97.

Impossible, say the sisters, as well as Cardin-Edwards. “I saw her that month, and she didn’t recognize me, so I find it hard to understand how she could sign a document so important,” he said.

All awaits judgment. Potential buyers — “big groups,” Rivière said — are circling in case Basilicati-Cardin loses and the family is able to put the company up for sale.

“We are serene,” Rivière said, “because we believe in justice.”

c.2023 The New York Times Company. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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