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The House of Balmain

The history of a great couturier

Pierre Balmain was born in St Jean de Maurienne, Savoie, in 1914. After the end of the war, in the autumn of 1945, having studied under the greatest couturiers of the time, Molyneux and Lucien Lelong, he opened his own Couture house and set up business in the Rue François 1er. His female clientele flocked to see him and were delighted to discover the new image of woman that he had created. That woman had shrugged off the last remaining images of the war, with considerable and unashamed charm, and in doing so heralded a return to opulence and richly embroidered finery.

The American author Gertrude Stein, a great friend of Pierre Balmain, enthusiastically greeted the arrival of the "New French Style" in her writings. The image soon to emerge was that of an active, vivacious, immaculate and elegant woman with a hint of insouciance; it was the birth of the "Jolie Madame", who symbolized the 1950s to perfection.

For Pierre Balmain, the 1960s were an occasion for renewal and the use of fabrics to explore pared-down shapes, in which structure acquired its full meaning. It involved a clashing and melding of new shapes and styles. It was also a sumptuous period for stage and theatre costumery. The couturier clothed numerous stars from within and outside France, including Brigitte Bardot, Marlène Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn, to name but a few. And it also marked a meeting with Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand, who appointed him as her exclusive couturier.

Pierre Balmain represented a certain idea of elegance and a clientele of queens, princesses and starlets, but as a label it was also very firmly established in the everyday world. The 1970s gave birth to the Ready-to-wear phenomenon, which secured a solid foothold in the market and which is currently producing some particularly satisfactory results with over 200 licences.

On the death of Pierre Balmain in 1982, Erik Mortensen, his very first assistant back in 1951 and his closest associate, ran with the Haute Couture flame, upholding the tradition while developing and renewing the same spirit of style and creativity. He was awarded the Golden Thimble of French Haute Couture for his Autumn/Winter 83-84 collection. On 31st July 1987, in the splendid setting of the Palais Galliéra, Erik Mortensen was awarded the Golden Thimble for the second time for his Autumn/Winter 87-88 collection. He left the House of Balmain in July 1990.

Then from 1990 to 1992, the young Hervé Pierre took over the helm of Haute Couture and Ready-to-Wear design at Balmain.

From 1993 to July 2002, Oscar de la Renta was Artistic Director of Haute Couture. Born in Santo Domingo to Spanish parents, Oscar de la Renta worked for Balenciaga's Madrilène studio, and then became Antonio Castillo's assistant at Lanvin before opening his own Couture house in New York in 1966. He remained staunchly faithful to the "Jolie Madame" style with his elegant, flowing designs.

Between 1998 and March 2000, Gilles Dufour, having been Karl Lagerfeld's right-hand man for 15 years, became Artistic Director of Balmain Diffusion Ready-to-Wear and the Licence Studios.

From March 2002 to the end of 2004, Laurent Mercier took over the Artistic Direction of Ready-to-Wear and, from September 2002, that of Haute Couture.

From February 2006 till March 2011, Christophe Decarnin has taken over the reins of women's ready-to-wear design at Balmain and from July 2008 till march 2011, he has assured the creation of the men’s ready to wear.