Synonymous with sophistication and glamour, the French luxury house was one of the very first brands to capture the American market. And, known for creating the new French style which was more focused on fabrication than flashy overly bedecked pieces, Pierre Balmain made sure that he was ahead of time
Words by Gayatri Muley
Born in the small French Alpine village of St Jean de Maurienne, Pierre was surrounded by fashion. Pierre’s dad ran a successful drapery business whereas his mom and sister owned a fashion boutique. All of this surely influenced the craft that he carried in his blood. However, Pierre was an architecture student who dropped out, when he realized his inclination toward fashion. During this time he happened to visit designer Edward Molyneux’s studio in the year 1934, which made him take the job at Molyneux. He worked there as a designer for five years until the second world commenced in 1936. Post this he served in the French Air Corps and the Pioneer Army Corps, before returning to fashion.
After the war concluded, Balmain went on to work for Lelong where he met his ex-mentor and friend Christian Dior. Balmain opened his first label ahead of Dior, although speculations suggest, they were supposed to start a label together. He believed that true style meant timeless classic pieces which is why he avoided fussy pieces and stuck to simple but impeccable styling. In those times designer houses like Yves Saint Laurant, Dior and Balenciaga focused on catering to French women. And, despite that, Balmain took the odd route of choosing America as one of its biggest markets. The French houses considered this an absurd idea and his competitors often overlooked him. The brand's success till now is a testament to how it was ahead of its time and the pretentious French priority followed by other brands kept them from attaining the same success.
But despite being a courtier, Balmain was more drawn by his financial goals rather than his creative ones. He wasn't keen on pushing the creative envelope but instead, he knew what women wanted and sold precisely that. He understood the growing popularity of ready-to-wear clothing in the USA and decided to focus on expanding his clientele there. Balmain added one more feather to his cap when he dressed up the queen Sirikit of Thailand for her world tour in 1960. He understood the effect of dressing up high-profile women. And so he, along with his right-hand woman Ginette Spanier, cultivated close relationships with celebrities like Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren, Katharine Hepburn, and Brigitte Bardot.
Balmain also had a lucrative perfume business that he later sold to Revlon, which was acquired back after his demise. Fashion historian Farid Chenoune revered Pierre Balmain as one of "the supreme practitioners of the New Look generation”. Pierre Balmain went on to live till the age of 68 and had completed the sketches of his last collection which was Fall 1968. The reigns of Balmain were in the hands of Erik Mortenson who was Pierrie’s right hand and life partner. Mortenson carried on the Balmain Legacy and also coped with the ever-changing world of fashion.
However, after Mortenson’s the fashion house was replaced by one of the most notable figures in Fashion History - Oscar De la Renta. Oscar worked for Balmain from 1993-2002 and was responsible for stirring the brand through a difficult time in fashion. One may accept it or not, but Perrie was surely ahead of his time in knowing the industry, mass popularity, and adapting trends. That said, his legacy is still continued under the brand led by Olivier Rousteing, who is the first black-origin designer to head the brand.