August 08, 1983 12:00 PM

When the grand alliance of two of France’s most famous names was announced back in 1979, tout Paris sneered. One partner was Maxim’s, the renowned Parisian restaurant whose reputation as a sort of gastronomic Notre-Dame was sinking slowly. (The Guide Michelin was going to strip off one of its three stars, causing the former owner, Louis Vaudable, to ask to be dropped from the guide.) But the savior? Incroyable! He was Pierre Cardin, the fashion designer whose trade-marked distinctive signature has moved more than 200 products, including designer jeans, bonbons and an airplane interior.

In just four years, however, Cardin has wrought a minor miracle on the Rue Royale. Restored to its former opulence, Maxim’s now welcomes glitterati like John Travolta, Woody Allen, Mick Jagger, Rudolf Nureyev and Kiri Te Kanawa. More impressively, Paris is no longer turning up its nose. Cooed Parisian food critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau: “Those who sneered when Pierre Cardin took over this historical monument were wrong. Maxim’s has perhaps never been so breathtaking as today.”

With typical modesty Cardin, 61, accepts all the credit and now plans to do for Maxim’s name what he did for his own. “I’m like a winner of the Olympics who needs to go even further,” Cardin says. “In five years, you’ll see. The name Maxim’s will surpass Cardin.” That doesn’t bother him since, he explains, “It’s all mine.”

First as a partner, now as majority owner, Cardin is pouring unmentionable amounts of cash (“Monsieur Cardin hates numbers,” sniffs an aide) into the born-again restaurant, first opened in 1893 by Maxime Gaillard. The restoration of the wall frescoes of nymphs and pastoral scenes and the refurbishing of the elaborately carved woodwork is being supervised by historian Pierre Pothier. Upstairs Cardin is bringing back the private dining rooms, including a chambre d’amour (salon, bedroom and bath) that can be reserved for 10,000 francs (about $1,300) a night. “It’s a gag,” he laughs, almost convincingly. “I respect the past even though I’m modern,” adds Pierre. “Everyone was terrified that I’d modernize Maxim’s. Now that they’ve seen what I’ve done, they marvel.”

Convinced of Maxim’s international recognition as a symbol of Parisian chic, Cardin, who knows an exportable name when he sees one, is proceeding at his usual frantic pace to make Maxim’s a kind of chichi McDonald’s. Maxim’s restaurants, each as close a replica of the Paris original as possible, have been cloned in Singapore, Tokyo, Brussels and, as of last June, London’s Haymarket. Next month another Maxim’s will open in Peking, followed by others in Moscow, New York, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, Rio, Istanbul, Sydney, Jidda and only Cardin knows where else. Back in Paris, meanwhile, Pierre has also opened a restaurant on the Rue du Fauborg Saint-Honoré coyly named Minim’s, an elegant fast-food counterpoint to haute cuisine. “This world is infinite, n’est-ce pas?” observes Cardin.

Owning the restaurants, of course, is merely an elegant excuse to flood the world’s marketplaces with Maxim’s nom de snob. Already some 90 luxury items bearing Maxim’s label—evening wear, linens, luggage, objets d’art, exotic flowers, sardine cans, vinegars, cigars and jams—are being sold through Cardin boutiques and other authorized outlets.

“I’m never bored,” says Cardin, nor is he likely to be in the near future. “I’m the sort of person who can slip into every situation, crossing borders and religions,” he says. His nonstop enthusiasm, to be sure, occasionally trips over the language barrier. For example, some years ago, according to an aide, he was asked on an American TV talk show how he liked being “at Hollywood and Vine?” Cardin’s face lit up. “Vine? Vine? Yes, I have just come out with a delicious red vine.”

Cardin seldom dwells on his humble beginnings in an Italian village near Venice, the son of a winemaker who lost everything in World War I and moved the family to Grenoble, France when Pierre was 2. A frail child, he had a favorite game—wrapping himself in yards of tulle. At 17, after working as a tailor’s apprentice, Pierre set off by bicycle to seek his fortune in Paris, but his journey was cut short in Vichy by the German invasion and occupation. He worked for the Red Cross and studied accounting by night until a fortuneteller told him his name would gain international fame and advised him to seek employment with a Paris fashion house.

Cardin finally reached Paris after the war and latched on as a designer with the famed couturier Paquin. After stints with Schiaparelli and Christian Dior, Cardin was ready to go it alone in 1950. After seven years of designing under his own name, he stunned the haute couture scene by introducing a ready-to-wear designer collection for men, followed two years later by a similar line for women. At the time high fashion coming straight off the rack was considered scandalous, but Cardin’s daring paved the way for the designer label phenomenon.

The money began rolling in, allowing Pierre to indulge his taste in expensive real estate that includes his Paris house almost next door to the Élysées palace, a palazzo in Venice and the Pointe de la Galère on the Riviera. The closest he came to marriage was a four-year liaison with actress Jeanne Moreau nearly two decades ago. “I need solitude, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do what I do,” he says. “I can’t share my decisions. I have few friends.”

Pierre habitually wakes between 3 and 4 each morning. Though he blames indigestion, it is in fact his time to think. During the day he moves “very, very fast,” personally overseeing every design that bears his labels, negotiating every licensing contract, even signing every paycheck for his 450 employees in Paris. And there’s always property to inspect, another plane trip somewhere. “I can’t stop. I’m an employee of my own trademark, someone called Pierre Cardin. I’m a prisoner in a prison I built myself,” he laments. Perhaps, but this prisoner is not yet contemplating his escape.

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