For a lot of brands that have been around for decades, it’s inevitable that their style will change over time. At times, the revolution will be so layered that new customers might never have known the true heritage of the label. This has happened to many haute couture houses of the early and mid-20th century, a lot of which flourished during the 1950’s and 60’s to what was known as the Golden Age of Haute Couture. Back then, these houses stood for extreme elegance and rigid refinement. But now, in the fashion industry’s current climate, they represent sexier and more daring styles. Such evolution is the story of Balmain.
Founding Father of Balmain
The once-couture house was founded by Pierre Balmain, one of the greatest couturiers of the 20th century. He was born on May 18, 1914, to an heir of a wholesale drapery business and a fashion boutique owner. Having spent many years in both garment-producing businesses, he developed a love for fashion early on. However, he initially studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts, upon the insistence of his mother, before dropping out and starting his fashion career. He soon applied for a part-time job to many of the prominent couturiers of the time, and among them, Edward Molyneux hired him as his apprentice.
He worked for the English designer from 1934 to 1939, exiting the house when he was called up for the mandatory military service at the time. Upon his return to Paris, he then went on to Lucien Lelong, for whom he worked as an assistant designer during the Second World War. It was here where he met Christian Dior and formed a strong friendship. It is said that the two encouraged each other to start a new fashion house under their own leadership, but the couture partnership never came to fruition. Balmain would later establish his own eponymous couture house in 1945 while Dior opened his in 1947.
He debuted his first collection on the 12th of October, 1945 in rue Francois Ier, where he opened his first salon. His array of darkly-hued suits, coats and dresses, as well as well-crafted evening gowns, drew much praise from the audience, which included well-known intellectuals Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. It was through their words of praise, not to mention the word of mouth spread by photographer Cecil Beaton and illustrator Christian Berard, that the house of Balmain was pushed to prominence and became a fixture in the period’s fashion scene.
Among that era’s most lauded couturiers, Balmain was one of the few who saw the potential in the growing markets in the United States and the South American countries. He was also known to be quite social with his clients, personally meeting and talking to them, and with the help of his directress GinetteSpanier, made them feel right at home in their salons. Back then, the designers whose couture houses bore their name were more aloof and didn’t interact with their clients as much, but not Balmain.
His name would reach the international press when in 1947, Queen Sikrit of Thailand commissioned Balmain to create her wardrobe for her tour to Europe and the USA with her husband. That moment in the brand’s history has been attributed to be the one that put Balmain on the map, and soon, his clientele grew exponentially. Other well-known figures started wearing his clothes as well, such as actresses Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn, and US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
That same year, he launched his first perfume, entitled “Elysees 64-83”, which bore his telephone number. He launched his second perfume, “Jolie Madame” in 1949. He also opened his first boutique in New York City around the same time, eventually setting up a studio in the city as well in 1951. For his work in the city, he received the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award in 1955. The following year, in 1956, he designed Brigitte Bardot’s wardrobe in her infamous film, “And God Created Woman”. Two years later, in 1968, he launched another perfume, “Miss Balmain”, which was the first fragrance of cosmetics companyRevlon.
The Passing of Pierre
In 1970, he sold his company to a knitwear manufacturer but stayed on as creative director of the brand’s haute couture line, and in 1982, he opened the label’s first ready-to-wear line. He passed away that same year, giving the design leadership role to his assistant, Erik Mortensen, who continued the haute couture line as well debuting the brand’s first ready-to-wear collection. Mortensen worked as head designer for the brand until 1990, when he was replaced by Oscar De La Renta.
De la Renta designed both the couture and ready-to-wear collections until 2006 when Christophe Decarnin took over as creative director for both the womenswear and menswear of the brand. It was around this time that the company discontinued haute couture, and from then on, emphasized on the ready-to-wear, accessories, and fragrances. Far from the sophistication of his predecessors’ and the founder’s work, Decarnin’sBalmain was a lot edgier, sexier, and had a rock chick look. Mini party dresses and studded pieces became the label’s new signature pieces, mostly inspired by the rock and roll look of the 80’s and the punk look of the 70’s.
In 2011, Decarnin was replaced by Olivier Rousteing as the new creative director of the house, following the former’s resignation. Rousteing continued the rock and roll aesthetic of Decarnin but enthused it with his own love for the elaborate and excessive styles of the 80’s and 90’s. In 2015, the brand collaborated with Swedish retail giant H&M for an affordable capsule collection, while in 2017, they also collaborated with lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret to create a collection for their famous annual fashion show. Similarly to the house’s founder, Rousteing has also been publicly interacting with a lot of his celebrity clients, giving birth to what is now known as the “Balmain army”.