Born: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, Savoie, 18 May 1914. Education: Studied architecture, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1933-34. Military Service: French Air Force, 1936-38, French Army Pioneer Corps, 1939-40. Career: Freelance sketch artist for Robert Piguet, Paris, 1934; assistant designer, Molyneux, Paris, 1934-38; designer, Lucien Lelong, Paris, 1939, 1941-45; founder/director, Maison Balmain, Paris, 1945-1982, Balmain Fashions, New York, 1951-55, Balmain Fashions, Caracas, 1954; director, Balmain S.A., Paris, 1977-82; ready-to-wear line launched, 1982; fragrances include Vent Vert, 1945, Jolie Madame, 1953, Miss Balmain, 1967, and Ivoire, 1980; fragrance business purchased by Revlon, 1960; also designed for the stage and films, from 1950. Company continued on after his death in 1982. Exhibitions: Pierre Balmain: 40 années de création, Musée de la Mode et du Costume, Palais Galliera, Paris, 1985-86. Awards: Neiman Marcus award, Dallas, 1955; Knight of the Order of Dannebrog, Copenhagen, 1963; Cavaliere Ufficiale del Merito Italiano, Rome, 1966; Officier de la Légion d'Honneur, 1978; Vermillion Medal, City of Paris. Died: 29 June 1982, in Paris. Company Address: 44 rue François-1er, 75008 Paris, France.
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Moukheiber, Zina, "The Face Behind the Perfume: Eric Fayer, Owner of Pierre Balmain," in Forbes, 27 September 1993.***
French couturier Pierre Balmain believed "dressmaking is the architecture of movement." His mission, as he saw it, was to beautify the world like an architect, and the relationship between architecture and couture was emphasized throughout Balmain's career. He initially studied to be an architect, yet the beauty of couture, Balmain often argued, was when it was brought to life on the human form. He also believed "nothing is more important in a dress than its construction."
The House of Balmain opened, with great acclaim from the fashion press, in 1945. Alice B. Toklas wrote, "A dress is to once more become a thing of beauty, to express elegance and grace." Prior to opening his own house, Balmain apprenticed with couturier Edward Molyneux, in Paris, for five years. These years with Molyneux taught him about the business of couture, as Molyneux was at the height of his success during this time. Balmain defined him as a true creator and learned about the elegance of simplicity from Molyneux, which was so evident in Balmain's later designs under his own name.
After leaving Molyneux, Balmain joined the firm of Lucien Lelong, where he worked from 1939 to 1944 off and on during the war and the German Occupation. In 1941 the House of Lelong reopened and Balmain returned to work with a newly hired designer, Christian Dior. Balmain credited himself with the now famous "New Look" and cited his first collection (1945), pictured in American Vogue, as evidence. These designs did illustrate the feminine silhouette of longer, bell-shaped, higher bustlines, narrow shoulders, and smaller waists. The collections of Jacques Fath and Balenciaga were also reflective of the New Look silhouette with which Christian Dior was ultimately credited.
Balmain believed that the ideal of elegance in clothing was achieved only through simplicity. He detested ornamentation for the sake of making a garment spectacular and offended the American fashion press by stating that Seventh Avenue fashion was vulgar. As a couturier he was not interested in fashion per se; rather he sought to dress women who appreciated an elegant appearance and possessed sophisticated style. Balmain once said, "Keep to the basic principles of fashion and you will always be in harmony with the latest trends without falling prey to them."
The basic Balmain silhouette for day was slim, with evening being full-skirted. He was credited with the popularization of the stole as an accessory for both day and evening. Balmain also used fur as trim throughout his collections. He was also remembered for his exquisite use of embroidered fabrics for evening.
After the war, Balmain toured the world giving lectures on the virtues of French fashion. He promoted the notion that French couture defined the ideal of elegance and refinement; his visits and lectures were intended to revive French haute couture, which had been virtually shut down during the war. As a result of Balmain's tours, he recognized the potential of the American market and opened a boutique in New York, offering his distinctly French fashions.
Balmain was one of the few French couturiers of his generation to also design for the theatre, ballet, and cinema, as well as for royalty. He was commissioned by Queen Sirikit of Thailand in 1960 to design her wardrobe for her official visit to the United States.
When Pierre Balmain died in 1982, his standards of elegance were still highly regarded in the world of couture. The tradition continued with Erik Mortensen, who had been with the company since the late 1940s, as head designer. In the late 1980s German-born Canadian financier Erich Fayer bought Ted Lapidus and perfumer Jacomo, then set his sights on Balmain. Fayer, along with Copeba, a Belgian investment firm, bought Balmain for around $30 million, which included reclaiming its fragrances from Revlon.
Fayer and Copeba soon parted ways after financial disputes and Fayer aggressively licensed the Balmain name, marketing champagne, rugs, furnishings, and virtually anything that could be sold under the Balmain brand. Balmain lost much of its cache, as well as many of its loyal customers and was put up for sale in 1989. Alain Chevalier bought Balmain in 1990 and brought in Hervé Pierre to lead the design team. After substantial losses and charges he looted the company of its assets, Fayer repurchased Balmain.
By late 1992 Balmain was poised for a welcome resurgence when American Oscar de la Renta was named its head designer. A star-studded gala in Paris marked de la Renta's official ascension to the post in January 1993, and his first collection for Balmain debuted the following February to rave reviews. Could an American designer bring the French Balmain back to its former glory in haute couture? Martha Duffy, writing for Time magazine in February 1993 said it succinctly, "If Balmain wants to catch up to the 1990s without leaping into the 21st century, the house made a very shrewd choice."
Balmain under the direction of de la Renta is a different couture house than when Pierre was at the helm, yet enduringly successful. The timeless elegance of Pierre Balmain's vision, however, lives on.
updated by NellyRhodes
Born: Scotland, 5 February 1956. Education: Graduated from St. Martin's School of Art, London, 1978. Career: Assistant to Marc Bohan, Dior, Paris, 1977; design assistant, Givenchy, Paris, 1978-80; assistant to Karl Lagerfeld, Chloé, Paris, 1980-83; designer, Karl Lagerfeld, New York, 1983-84; designer, Alistair Blair, 1985-89; freelance designer and design consultant to Jaeger, Balmain, Complice, Turnbull and Asser, beginning in 1989; knitwear designer, McGeorge, beginning in 1988; designer, Ivoire ready-to-wear collection, Balmain, Paris, 1990-91; designer, Ballantine, beginning in 1989; creative director, Balmain, Paris, 1991; design consultant, Cerruti, Paris, beginning in 1991; design consultant to Valentino, Rome, beginning in 1993. Address: 4 Belmont Court, Pembroke Mews, London W8 6ES, England.
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When Alistair Blair showed his first collection in London in 1986, he was testing very tepid water. At that time, British designer fashion was recognized for its youth and eccentricity, fun and witty clothes, often unwearable and badly produced. Blair, complete with impeccable fashion credentials (a first class degree from St. Martin's School of Art in London, followed by training at Dior and Givenchy in Paris, then as design assistant to Karl Lagerfeld), seemed to pose little threat to this established reputation in terms of making a valid fashion statement. Blair, however, realized there was a gap in the British fashion market for continental couture at ready-to-wear prices, a gap that became the philosophy for his company.
This singular marketing notion met with immediate fashion applause at the first season's launch. "Blair has arrived as quite simply the most stylish designer in London," raved Fashion Weekly (16 October 1987). Things very quickly went from strength to strength; support came from top international stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Henri Bendel in New York, Harrods in London, and Seibu in Tokyo were quick to place orders. Possibly the greatest publicity came when the Duchess of York ordered her engagement outfit from him.
Blair's backer was Peder Bertelsen, the Danish oil millionaire. Blair, who was considering an offer to work for Royal couturier Norman Hartnell, was advised by a friend to discuss the move with Bertelsen. "Before I knew where I was he was suggesting that he would back me and I was agreeing," he was quoted as saying. Bertelsen was perhaps British fashion's most important asset in the mid-1980s. He injected a great deal of money into his creation of a fashion empire, buying several prestigious stores including Ungaro, Valentino, and Krizia, and backing John Galliano. In his analysis of British designer fashion he concluded that it fell into two categories— old and new money; old money was the Establishment, including the landowners; new money was in the city or in oil and each identified with its own dress designers. Blair was categorized as Bertelsen's designer for the Establishment.
There was certainly something chic yet traditional about Blair's clothes, even in his luxurious choice of fabrics: alpaca, cashmere and lambswool mixes, duchesse satin and satin backed crêpe, expensive soft suedes and kid leather, even sumptuous embroidery from the Royal embroiderer's Lock Ltd. Dog-tooth check wool coats, flannel jackets, and wool crêpe evening dresses in sharp, florid colors always incorporated a section in Blair's signature colors of orange and black.
Each collection evoked a grown-up sensuality, with obvious visual references to the soigné looks of French film stars like Michele Morgan or Catherine Deneuve, prompting Andrée Walmsley from Fortnum and Mason to enthuse, "He has a very French handwriting, which I adore." The catwalk shows enlivened British Fashion Weeks with their no-expense-spared glamor. A coterie of international models, from Linda Evangelista to Cindy Crawford, was flown in to promote the clothes as the paparazzi enthused that Paris had firmly established itself in London.
Even though Blair edited the collections with business-like alacrity, the Bertelsen empire was losing money. Bertelsen admitted toBusiness Magazine in December 1987 that he had lost a million on his first set of accounts. This nonaccumulation of profit eventually led to Bertelsen pulling out as Blair's backer. Even though Blair subsequently found alternative backing, it was not enough to keep the company afloat and it eventually folded. Despite the hype and publicity behind the name, this perhaps exemplifies a problem experienced by many British fashion companies—without the backing of huge textile conglomerates as happens in France, and the vast income earned from licensed goods such as perfume or cosmetics, sole clothing companies often struggle to survive.
As Blair has said, "It's a business. At the end of the day you have to make money for a lot of other people as well." Fortunately for Alistair Blair, his designing was a much respected commodity and led him to design consultancies with a host of firms, including Jaeger, Pierre Balmain, and Complice.
Pierre Balmain (1914–1982) was born in the Savoie region of France in 1914. He studied architecture for a year in Paris before taking a position as a sketch artist with the fashion house of Robert Piguet in 1934. He worked at the House of Molyneux as an assistant designer from 1934 to 1938, and as a designer with Lucien Lelong in Paris in 1939 and from 1941 to 1945. During this time he worked alongside another young designer at Lelong, Christian Dior. In 1945 Balmain founded the Maison Balmain as a couture house with a lucrative sideline in fragrances. He expanded into the American market in 1953, showing his collections under the brand name Jolie Madame. The Balmain perfume business was sold to Revlon in 1960, but Pierre Balmain continued as the proprietor and chief designer of the Maison Balmain until his death in 1982.
The fashion historian Farid Chenoune described Pierre Balmain as one of "the supreme practitioners of the New Look generation," along with Christian Dior and Jacques Fath. During the 1950s and 1960s, Balmain's clients included some of the world's most elegant and best-dressed women, such as Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, and Queen Sirikit of Thailand.
Balmain's work was characterized by an emphasis on impeccable construction and simple elegance. He is credited with popularizing the stole as an accessory. He once said, "Keep to the basic principles of fashion and you will always be in harmony with the latest trends without falling prey to them."
The Maison Balmain continued in business after Pierre Balmain's death, with several designers and under shifting ownership throughout the 1980s. A ready-to-wear line was added in 1982. The company reacquired its perfume business from Revlon but unwisely entered into extensive licensing agreements that put the Balmain name on a wide range of products, diluting the company's image. In 1993 Oscar de la Renta took on the position of chief designer for the Maison Balmain—the first American to become head designer for a Paris couture house. De la Renta's first collection for the company, which appeared on the runway in February 1994, was a critical and commercial success. Critics generally agree that de la Renta, who spent nearly a decade at Balmain, succeeded not only in reviving the company's fortunes, but also in restoring the house's old reputation for elegance. Oscar de la Renta presented his final collection for Balmain in July 2002. He was succeeded by Laurent Mercier, who was artistic director from 2002 to 2003, and Christophe Lebourg, who was appointed in 2003.
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