"In the beginning, they always criticize me," Pierre Cardin says gleefully. "They say, 'What is he doing now? Quel horreur? Quel décadence. That's the end of Cardin.' Then, six months later, they're all doing it."

The 54-year-old Frenchman is more right than humble. Not only did his flamboyant men's clothes lead to the "Peacock Revolution" of the 1960s and his ready-to-wear designer fashions for women lower the brows of haute couture, he also has inspired many of his fellow couturiers to venture into entrepreneurial areas far removed from clothing.

Few, however, have extended themselves as much as Cardin, whose $100-million-a-year operation is responsible for, among other things, Cardin towels, Cardin stereo sets, Cardin kitchens, Cardin glassware, Cardin bicycles, Cardin carpets, Cardin lamps, Cardin ashtrays, Cardin wallpaper, Cardin wines and Cardin chocolates.

"The next thing you know he'll be designing cheese," huffed an executive at archcompetitor Yves St. Laurent. "Cardin is no longer a label," exults Cardin himself. "It is a trademark."

The trademark is used by 280 factories with 60,000 employees, located in 51 countries on six continents. Only Antarctica has thus far escaped the impact of what the French have come to call Cardinization. (And no one is betting against the likelihood of a Cardin penguin leash.)

While most of the Cardin products are manufactured under licensing arrangements, Cardin is more than just the man behind the scene. He is all over the scene. On a typical day he leaves his Paris townhouse after breakfast—assuming he remembers to have breakfast—and walks to his office at 59 Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, the Right Bank street of exclusive shops. There are morning meetings with directors of his foreign companies, followed by briefer consultations with textile makers and other suppliers, many of whom fly to Paris from all over Europe just to aim a 15-minute sales pitch at Cardin.

Between appointments, Cardin may lope upstairs to his fashion workroom to tinker with a detail on a garment from a forthcoming line. Cardin claims responsibility for all original designs, which are then executed by subordinates under his watchful eye. Cardin has also maintained his presence at formal showings—the latest one, his spring-summer line, was unleashed four months ago in Paris—even though his ready-to-wear business is the most profitable sector of his empire. "Actually," he says, "we lose money on haute couture. But it is a great laboratory for ideas."

In the sparsely furnished, white-walled workroom, he gives brief audiences to employees with questions or suggestions, talking little but gesturing with Mediterranean expansiveness. When a supervisor approached him to pass on an employee's request for a raise, Cardin said crisply, "Give it to him. He has worked for me for many years." Another employee says, "You have to have a sixth sense to work for him. It is very tiring. But he is the best school in the world."

After perhaps 15 meetings, it is time for lunch, which he often eats on a plane bound for the South of France, England or Italy en route to visiting a factory. He may be back in his offices by late afternoon, checking stocks in his three nearby boutiques, going over the books, rearranging furniture or even, with a kind of frenetic energy, sweeping up a messy room.

In especially busy times Cardin has been known to go on work binges, wearing the same suit and tie for several days, neglecting to shave and generally becoming a less than persuasive advertisement for the Cardin look. When less pressed, Cardin often spends the evening at his version of Xanadu, l'Espace ("Space"), a combination theater and exhibition hall which he opened in December 1970.

Cardin recently turned l'Espace into a Sarah Bernhardt museum. He has also used it to introduce new painters, sculptors and playwrights as well as to present such established performers as Ella Fitzgerald, Marlene Dietrich and Dionne Warwicke. He is said to lose $300,000 a year on I'Espace but is more than compensated in personal enjoyment—not to mention good public relations. The couturier André Courrèges, who admires the way Cardin operates, says, "He does it because it is his mistress."

Cardin seems to have no other hobbies, spending his occasional quiet evenings at home reading or watching television. He shares a 12-room town-house, decorated in a tasteful blend of modern furniture and French and Chinese antiques, with his half-sister Janine. "I have no time for parties," he says. "Besides, a gathering larger than four or five people bores me. After work, solitude dominates my life."

Cardin has always had a reputation as a solitary, if not lonely, man, except for a period in the late '60s when he lived with actress Jeanne Moreau. Cardin now calls those "the best years of my life" and says wistfully that he wishes he and Moreau had had children. Their relationship ended, Moreau has explained, because "he has a very strong personality and mine is not exactly a weak one either." After Moreau, Cardin returned to the independent life he has followed since he was a boy.

His father, a French wine merchant near St. Etienne, lost all of his money during World War I. Shortly after Pierre was born in 1922, the family moved to Avignon and then to Grenoble. Cardin remembers that he was a frail boy whose favorite game was wrapping himself and a playmate, the daughter of a textile manufacturer, in yards of tulle.

By the time he was 14, he was putting tulle to better use as a tailor's apprentice, and at 17 he set off on a bicycle for the fashion ateliers of Paris. The Nazi army got there before he did, though, so he stopped in Vichy, where he worked first for a tailor and then in the accounting office of the French Red Cross.

Soon after the war ended, Cardin finally made it to Paris and, taking the advice of a Vichy fortune-teller he consulted before moving, he applied for a job at Paquin, a prominent fashion house. A few days later he was assigned by Paquin to do costumes for Jean Cocteau's movie of Beauty and the Beast. The film became a classic—not least because of the lavish clothes Cardin designed for Jean Marais, the actor who played the Beast. "I was finally in the land of my dreams," says Cardin.

In those days, nonetheless, he made little money, lived in a maid's room and frequently worked 18-hour days. After two years he took his burgeoning reputation to Schiaparelli, then the dominant figure of Paris fashion. He stayed only briefly before going to work for Christian Dior, whose "New Look" of 1947 Cardin helped create.

He and Dior split when the designer accused a friend of Cardin's of involvement in an office theft. Cardin, after first defending the friend, resigned when he realized the charges were true. However, because Dior had implored him to stay—at one point sending Cardin 12 dozen roses as a conciliatory gesture—they remained friends.

Shortly before he died in 1957, in fact, Dior passed his unofficial leadership of the industry to Cardin, saying, "Take up the torch. It can be yours." Long before that he had done his former employee a bigger favor by sending overflow customers to Cardin. By that time Cardin had set up his own atelier in an attic to create theater costumes and ball gowns. With Dior's recommendation, he was soon flourishing. "It was incredible," he has recalled. "There seemed to be a ball every night and one more splendid than the next. Women thought nothing about spending $2,000 for a dress. And what dresses! They were sequined and spun with gold thread. They glittered. They were fabulous. Nobody spends money like that anymore. Everybody is afraid the revolutionaries will break down the doors."

By 1954, two years after his first showing, a huge hit, Cardin had opened Eve, his original Paris boutique. His reputation grew; so did his empire. In 1957 he opened a store for ready-to-wear men's clothes, Adam. It was a shocking departure from the elitism of high fashion, but his competitors had barely recovered when two years later Cardin introduced a signed collection of off-the-rack women's clothes in the Paris department store Au Printemps.

In 1960 he introduced his first formal all men's collection, stepping up his attention to male clothing throughout the decade, a move which coincided, not by chance, with the end of the-white-shirt-and-skinny-tie era. By 1966 Cardin had branched out into baby clothes, and as haute couture succumbed to a permanent press of competition from mass marketing, Cardin began diversifying with élan.

Cardin has long been sniped at by fellow couturiers who resent his break with tradition. And by expanding into other commercial products, he became an even broader target. Roger Tallon, France's leading industrial designer, complained in 1974, "Cardin is exploiting his name to death. Those who surround him have created a Cardin myth. To me, it's simply a bag of wind." When TIME ran a 1974 cover story in Europe extolling Cardin as an industrial designer and he posed for the cover wearing nothing but one of his bath towels, famed American designer Raymond Loewy wrote, "I deeply regret that my extremely talented friend Pierre Cardin, the world's foremost clothes designer, chose to discredit a profession to which he apparently yearns to belong and to which he may eventually have to answer." Fellow couturier Hubert de Givenchy says, "Cardin tries a lot of things, but he should stick to fashion.... His evening gowns are excellent."

Not all of Cardin's ventures have worked out by any means. In 1970, for instance, he introduced a new uniform for surgical nurses. It was little more than a body stocking with miniskirt and might have caused an alarming increase in deaths by distraction in the operating room if it had not been laughed off. And Cardin is still waiting to export his men's suits to the Soviet Union after two years of negotiations.

His critics do not appear to distress him. "It's not a dishonor to be a businessman when one is a creator too," Cardin says. Then he adds, "I owned the first rights to the play Equus and produced it in my theater. Then St. Laurent bought the rights and now it's a hit in New York. Why? I don't know. He doesn't even like the theater! He's following me. He's doing what I do. Again!"

Alors, that is only within-the-family bickering. St. Laurent is not the enemy, and Cardin knows it. The enemy is a blight—a growing blight—and Cardin pronounces its name with disgust:

"The jean! The jean is the destructor! It is a dictator! It is destroying creativity. The jean must be stopped!"