It was here at no. 44 that the very young fashion designer, Pierre Balmain, after briefly trying his hand at architectural studies to please his mother and after an apprenticeship with Molyneux and Lelong, founded his own couture house.
In Paris, at the time, there were more than 80 couture houses. Fashion was associated with names such as Chanel, Patou, Schiaparelli, Vionnet and Molyneux. The design of these couture houses was entrusted to the expert hands of Mallet Stevens and their interior layout to Jean-Michel Frank.
It was here that Pierre Balmain, while walking with a friend in search of an apartment, noticed some German soldiers stacking up piles of documents outside the building. The concierge confirmed that once its occupants had vacated it, the apartment would be for commercial lease. Thenceforth, his destiny was sealed: he took the first floor and immediately handed in his resignation to Lucien Lelong.
And finally, it was here in the autumn of 1945, that Pierre Balmain was to design his first collection in this somewhat impractical apartment that served as his couture house. The old bathroom was to be his studio. His desk was a plank of wood balanced across the bathtub, and the kitchen was his fabric storehouse. His team comprised twenty-four people, including sixteen seamstresses who had to share fifteen stools, the sixteenth having to sit on the umbrella stand!.
The next task was to decorate and refurbish the building. The salons were painted in aquamarine hues with mouldings highlighted in white. The ceilings, adorned with a profusion of cherubs painted in around 1870 by one of the princesses de Broglie, whose family owns the building to this day, were saved. At the windows hung white mercerised linen curtains and the seating, as in all couture houses worthy of the name, took the form of copies of Louis XVI cabriolet back chairs.
On Friday 12th October 1945, with the blessing of Father Martin, a very worldly Oratorian, Pierre Balmain scored a huge success showing his first collection.
Balmain always forged very strong links between architecture and couture, so much so that in the margins of his design sketches, he doodled away at ideas for houses. “I often react as an architect, and think as an architect", he confided. "There is certainly a huge amount of common ground between an architect and a couturier.
"The fact that one builds in stone and the other in muslin, that one hopes to survive the centuries, while the other only sets out to last a season, does not make them essentially that different. Both work with mass and volume and with a scrupulous concern for harmony that is not as mysterious as it may seem. The architect and the couturier both express themselves with their own personality, each starting with their own initial premise, which for one is spatial configuration, a space that needs to be filled, and for the other, the female body…”
Over the years, the building underwent a number of transformations, the last dating from 1991: with pale hues, fitted carpeting, overhead natural lighting, and walls hung with the sketches of René Gruau. The mood was above all modern.
In 2006, at the age of 42, Christophe Decarnin took over as artistic director of the couture house. He began to reinterpret the great classics of Pierre Balmain, adhering to the same minimalist cuts while updating them with his own rock, graphic and sensual style.
He was an immediate success with clients and the press.
Today, the challenge is to rethink the House, transform it, edge it onward and upward, while at the same time restoring its DNA.
Franck Durand, the artistic director responsible for the Pierre Balmain image, found in Joseph Dirand the ideal partner to jointly rethink what that new space might be.
In the entrance, an 18th century bust stands at the foot of the imposing staircase. At the far end is a small office – a kind of sombre-coloured boudoir with mouldings picked out in gilt. The visitor ascends via the stone staircase, embellished with a balustrade designed by Joseph Dirand, to the landing, which gives onto a string of rooms: the grand ceremonial salon and the small salon. Then onward towards the more intimate, yet spacious fitting room-cum-salons peculiar to the traditional couture houses. The salons themselves, from the Versailles parquet floor to the ceilings, are painted in shades of white and beige. The colour scheme reminiscent of damp plaster subdues and envelops the space with subtle hues.
Many couture houses had turned their backs on what they once were. Therein lay the challenge for Joseph Dirand. To recreate the history of the brand and prepare for the future. To achieve this, he placed himself in the shoes of an 18th century craftsman, in order to retranscribe age-old codes and techniques into the 21st century, and use the same work methods to recreate the aura of a private mansion. The ceilings were recreated by a master staff plasterer from Versailles. Craftsmen were called upon for their skill and passion. The lighting was intentionally exposed: “I didn't want flush-fitting spotlights under a false ceiling", said the architect; "it would be like admitting a lie, which would defeat my purpose.”
Furniture is dotted around the different spaces to subtle effect. Some pieces were designed by Joseph Dirand: tables, swan-neck curtain ties, rails, occasional tables. Other pieces hark back to the label's origins. The carefully selected pieces illustrate the work of some of the top names of the 1940s: a console by Gilbert Poillerat, whose calligraphic style base, formed of myriad arabesques and volutes of twisted wrought iron, perfectly captures the spirit of the time; a round occasional table by André Arbus, and wall lamps by Jean Royère.
The premises rediscovered their former glory in an accomplished nod to the couture houses of yesteryear. But the challenge lay in how to add a touch of modernity while avoiding ostentation; how to incite surprise and emotion. But Joseph Dirand is a dab hand who knows how to astonish. In these amply-proportioned rooms, he thus created three abstract, mirrored shapes to punctuate the space. “The moment we set up the steles," says the architect, "I was overcome with excitement. It was as if these items suddenly gave meaning to the whole. I don't seek to impress: on the contrary, I seek balance, but with a hint of spice, as with the items by Christophe Decarmin, which exude a more sophisticated aura in this setting.”
That experience and the emotion it inspires are above all for the benefit of the clientele, who can indulge in the luxury of taking their time; of enjoying very special treatment; of being deeply moved by a collection that reflects so perfectly the spirit of Pierre Balmain: the reconciliation between tradition and creation, spurred by an inquisitive mind and a lack of preconceptions.