A native of the Savoie in France, Pierre Balmain was born on May 19, 1914. He graduated from the Ecole Nationale Superiure de Beaux-Arts in Paris with a degree in Architecture in 1934. He worked as a freelance illustrator and assistant designer after graduation.
The winds of war were in Europe during the 1930s, and like most young men during that time, Balmain served in the military (1936-1940). After World War II (1945) he founded Maison Balmain and was its Director until 1982, the year he died.
Balmain’s background in architecture played a big role in his designs. He saw clothes in terms of architectural elements brought to life in human forms. He believed in elegance brought by simplicity. Balmain’s elegant, super-feminine looks were favorites among European royalty and Hollywood fashion plates like Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren.
After Balmain’s death, the company continued to exist. In 1992, Oscar De La Renta took the role as Creative Director, a position which he would hold for 10 years. His last collection for Balmain was Haute Couture Fall 2002. In Nov 2001, Laurent Mercier was hired to design the ready-to-wear collection for Balmain. He debuted in Paris during the Fall 2002 ready-to-wear fashion season and received rave reviews from fashion editors. The Swiss-born Mercier then debuted at Paris Haute Couture Show during the Spring 2003 season with mixed reviews.
Mercier stayed with Balmain for just over a year, resigning from his post on June, 2003. Two months later, on Aug 1, French designer Christophe Lebourg assumed the top creative post in Balmain. He made his debut during Paris Spring 2004 season. The company hit troubled times during 2004, lasting for two years wherein during that time it was forced to file bankruptcy.
After two years of hiatus from the catwalk, Balmain came back during the Fall 2006 Paris ready-to-wear season (Feb 2006) under a new Creative Director Christophe Decarnin. For a label that was once known for ultra elegant evening attire with a draping and pleating focus, Decarnin’s appointment took it toward tough-chic, thigh-grazing, body-skimming looksÔÇöa sensibility that embraces the quintessential trendsetting French party-girl. Owner Alain Hivelin claims that sales have doubled since Decarnin’s appointment, projecting 2009 to amass $28 million in revenue (the clothes are notoriously expensiveÔÇöa sparkly tee is $3,000, dresses are $12,000 to $22,000, and jackets are $5,000). Expansions are also in the works, adding staff, a shoe line with Giuseppe Zanotti, and the label’s first men’s collection in Paris in January 2009.
The following is the timeline of designers for Balmain:
Laurent Mercier, Fall 2002 – Spring 2003
Oscar de la Renta, 1993 – 2002
Herve Pierre, 1990 – 1992
Erik Mortensen, 1982 – 1990
Pierre Balmain, 1945 – 1982
Christophe Decarnin came out of nowhere to head the house in 2005, and with every collection he does for Balmain, sales have doubled. Cathy Horyn does a profile of the “colorless and shy” designer in the Women’s Winter Fashion issue of T Magazine, examining why Balmain has been so successful in such a short time, especially when Decarnin took over the ailing house from “the fiasco of its last designer, Laurent Mercier, who liked to dress up as Jayne Mansfield and have people call him Lola.” So who and what does Decarnin, with his “French permagloom, his pale arms crossed over his white T-shirt, his black hair in greasy strands,” and his “short, pathetic answers” have to thank for all the success?
The supercool girls.
“Balmain has become the label of the supercool girls . . . the girls in London and Paris who work as assistants at fashion magazines, design studios and P.R. firms, or who have some terrific family-tree connections they swing from. They’re 21 or 22 years old. Anyway, they’re crazy about clothes. Julia Restoin Roitfeld, whose mother is Carine Roitfeld, the editor of French Vogue, wears Balmain. So does Eugenia Niarchos, Olympia Scarry, Gaia Repossi, Dasha Zhukova and Charlotte Casiraghi, a daughter of Princess Caroline.”
Balmain designer Christophe Decarnin, who has been cribbing from Jackson and other ’80s icons for a while now, is to blame for fashion’s current crystal addiction, for sparkly biker jackets and disco-ball micro mini-dresses that have crept into the wardrobes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Moss, and onto nearly every runway this season. Is it no surprise to see Micheal Jackson himself wearing Balmain?
To see Balmains seasonal collections click here.
Photos and some text courtesy of Balmain, NYmag, T Magazine, LATimes and Net-a-Porter