In 1954, when Pierre Balmain was approaching the apogee of a four-decade career, the French couturier was counted among the “Big Three” of Parisian fashion, along with Christian Dior and Jacques Fath. “A garment made by Pierre Balmain was the very quintessence of haute couture,” the Vogue editor Diana Vreeland said.
Balmain’s elaborately embroidered evening gowns were particularly admired, as were his furs. Balmain showed fox pelts with eyes made out of 12-carat diamonds. He’d opened for business in 1945, not long after the liberation of Paris, and reigned during the ’50s, when all the world celebrated the spectacle of French luxury and elegance reborn. But his chic and structured Jolie Madame look lost currency as the ’50s turned into the ’60s, and was in decline by the time he died in 1982.
Before Christophe Decarnin’s appointment as artistic director in 2005, nearly a dozen designers had tried to fill Monsieur Balmain’s shoes. Only one of these made a mark: Oscar de la Renta, who spent nearly a decade at the helm of the couture line—from 1993 to 2002. Decarnin turned the maison on its head. Wagering from the start that any specific nods to Balmain’s half-forgotten mid-century designs would not be recognized by the public, he eschewed the formula of plucking from the archives.