Balmain

Pierre (1914-1982). French tailor. His style was defined by the expression “Jolie Madame.” He became very rich, but died poor. Hubert de Givenchy gave his eulogy in the church of Saint Pierre de Chaillot in front of a white coffin covered with white flowers, surrounded by people who worked in fashion personalities and a very few friends, while the organ played Mahler’s Second Symphony. It was Paris’ last goodbye to one of its major figures, who died on June 29th 1982 in the very same American Hospital where Fath, his contemporary at the beginning of his career, also died. Like Fath, he didn’t have people willing to back him; like him, he was rich only in enthusiasm and skill, rewarded with sudden celebrity from his success. The press had not written about him for quite some time and didn’t attend his presentations, which were considered uninteresting and stuck on that theme of the Jolie Madame which had made him famous, to which he would remain faithful, and which, after him, would return many times. And yet, in 1955, in an article for L’Espresso called Dior, and you know who is Dior, didn’t outshine him, Camilla Cederna, after the surprise of her first meeting with that man who had a physique so at odds with the ideal of a great tailor, wrote: “A vigorous aviator (during the war), with wide, massive shoulders, a broad face with a short, impertinent moustache, and a high, ambitious forehead. This is Pierre Balmain, one of the greatest tailors of the century, his business turnover amounts to one billion liras.” And again in 1964, in the preface to the English edition of his autobiography Pierre Balmain, My Years and Seasons, one can read: “To be chic, every rich woman who can buy her clothes in Paris must have at least one Balmain piece as the basis of her wardrobe.” Fashion was his destiny: he would make dolls out of cardboard and dress them. That is the way many other tailors also began. Except that at the time Pierre was already a grown boy and his hobby was considered a scandal in the small village where he lived, Saint Jean de Maurienne in Haute Savoy: “A boy who wants to do a woman’s job!” With an imperious command, his beautiful, strong-willed and adored mother (the only one who had influence over him, who was equally imperious and stubborn) ordered him to move to Paris to study architecture. Fortunately, as he himself would later say, an economic setback in his family obliged him to “earn his living.” Therefore, in 1934, he began his time at Molyneux. In this atelier at the peak of success and snobbism, the provincial, ambitious, enthusiastic Balmain not only acquired a trade that was perfect for him, along with an English taste for a very sophisticated simplicity, but also came into contact with the powerful society elite which was Molyneux’s clientele, with the tastes, refined lunches, salons, the charm, and the demands of the beautiful women of whom the Duchess of Kent, the most important client of the maison, was the representative. This craving for high society, luxury and wealth was to take permanent root in his Savoyard character, creating a dangerous conflict. In 1939 he went to Lelong along with Dior, with whom he became such close friends as to plan to open an atelier together. Finally, on October 12th 1945, came the big leap. With some small savings, the pawning of his mother’s jewellery, and a little borrowed money, he bought the building on Rue de Franµois I which, enlarged and redecorated, would be his permanent place of business. He started with 20 workers, 50 models, and his mother and aunt as supervisors. That first Collection had two special godmothers. One was Gertrude Stein, the companion of Hemingway and Fitzgerald during their Paris years, and the other was her friend Alice B. Toklas. They were old and a little ridiculous in their masculine clothes. Balmain had met them in Savoy, where they stayed during the war. He won them over them with two suits and they became the Paris propagandists for his talent. They were unsightly but they were powerful in the cultural world that at the time mixed perfectly with fashion and high society. They gave him his first push, together with their friends Cecil Beaton and Christian Bérard who would introduce him to the theater world with the great success of the costumes for Giraudoux’s La Folle de Chaillot (The Mad Woman of Chaillot). His first dress was sold to Princess Ghislaine de Polignac, and since then the list of his clients has constituted a true book of Gotha which included the Duchess of Kent, the Duchess of Windsor, the Countess Charles Emmanuel de la Rochefoucauld, Queen Sirikit of Thailand, the wealthiest members of the bourgeoisie, as well as various artists and divas. He dressed Katharine Hepburn in the film Les Millionaires, in which the actress played the most elegant woman in the world. He created the first extremely tight-fitting sexy black dress for Juliette Gréco, a dress which became the uniform of existentialism. Later, in the mid 1950s, even Brigitte Bardot, who was anti-fashion, turned to him when she had to go to London to be presented to Queen Elizabeth. They immediately had a violent disagreement, as she didn’t want to cover her famous bosom (she was in competition with Marilyn Monroe for the best décolleté) and the tailor didn’t want to trample on the etiquette of the Court. She left for London in a high-necked dress, but one which emphasized the curve of her breasts, and the tailor received a telegram which said, “Great success, all the journalists took note of my overflowing modesty.” From presentation to presentation, he became more and more in the forefront of celebrity (in 1955 he received the Neiman Marcus Award), while his taste for high society, his theatricality, his ostentation when receiving guests at Elba or Croissy, grew in proportion. For a dinner in honor of the Royals of Thailand he ordered a trout weighing some 175 pounds from Lake Chad in Africa, and ordered some Florentine craftsmen to build a kettle almost five feet long. He never missed a season opening at La Scala, to which he offered flowers to decorate the boxes and where he made his entrance wearing a top hat and a bat-like cloak. He was always accompanied by his most spectacular models: the Irish Bronwen Pugh, very tall, swaying, and dreamy; and his favorites, Marie Thérèse and Praline. He was a man who attracted and rejected at the same time. A dualism that was very clear in the pages of the book It Isn’t All Mink, written by Ginette Spanier, his directress for 20 “He was an extraordinary personality; he loves enthusiasm and emphasis, but he is a stubborn, obstinate perfectionist. He has no half-ways. He loves the very simple and demure blue and white dresses of Molyneux and the most luxurious evening toilettes in which, to create a contrast, he matched lynx fur and tulle, an ermine blouse with a white and black chequered skirt, luxury embroideries and the white foxes so appreciated by his client Marlene Dietrich. He adored very tall women, but small feet, dancing, the rich people and he asked Father Bernardet, from Savoy, to bless all his new boutiques.” He knew the highest glory, but he was also the only great tailor to know the downfall&b;. After the death of his mother, a solid Savoyard woman, Balmain lost also his precious friend and partner, a manager, an organizer, as Berger was for Saint-Laurent or Giammetti for Valentino. At the first crisis, he made the great mistake of selling his safest source of income, his perfumes (Vent Vert was a big success) to Revlon. Other difficulties followed. On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the house, he faced bankruptcy, which he tried to avoid. A loyal and proud man, he sold everything, from his house in Croissy to his property on Elba, and put all his personal assets into the firm. But it was not enough. The atelier functioned, the number of his clients did not drop, and the luxury prêt-à-porter line went very well, but nothing was organized according to the standards of the time, deliveries were never on time, and there were only two points-of-sale in Paris. The IDI (the Institute of Industrial Development) and some private banks tried to intervene. The maison was rescued and relaunched, and even expanded under his successor, the Danish Erik Mortensen, and later with Hervé Pierre, Alistair Blair and Oscar de la Renta. In 1975, Balmain wrote a long letter to his most devoted friend, Giuliano Fratti. It was a sad letter, and like a testament. It was mailed from Marrakech, but written on paper with Elba’s initials: “This paper is all I have of my beautiful home. I am nothing but an old rich man.”
Laurent Mercier becomes creative director in place of the outgoing Oscar de la Renta. The line is presented in October together with the new fragrance Balmya. After 10 years of collaboration with the maison, de la Renta presents his farewell Collection at the Paris Haute Couture week. The company acquires the factory and four shops of Mugler. The year closes with an operating profit of €1.9 million and a turnover of €25.9 million.