Pierre Balmain (1914 – 1982) was born in the Savoie region of France in 1914. He studied architecture for a year in Paris before taking a position as a sketch artist with the fashion house of Robert Piguet in 1934. He worked at the House of Molyneux as an assistant designer from 1934 to 1938, and as a designer with Lucien Lelong in Paris in 1939 and from 1941 to 1945. During this time he worked alongside another young designer at Lelong, Christian Dior. In 1945 Balmain founded the Maison Balmain as a couture house with a lucrative sideline in fragrances. He expanded into the American market in 1953, showing his collections under the brand name Jolie Madame. The Balmain perfume business was sold to Revlon in 1960, but Pierre Balmain continued as the proprietor and chief designer of the Maison Balmain until his death in 1982.
The fashion historian Farid Chenoune described Pierre Balmain as one of “the supreme practitioners of the New Look generation,” along with Christian Dior and Jacques Fath. During the 1950s and 1960s, Balmain’s clients included some of the world’s most elegant and best-dressed women, such as Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, and Queen Sirikit of Thailand.
Balmain’s work was characterized by an emphasis on impeccable construction and simple elegance. He is credited with popularizing the stole as an accessory. He once said, “Keep to the basic principles of fashion and you will always be in harmony with the latest trends without falling prey to them.”
The Maison Balmain continued in business after Pierre Balmain’s death, with several designers and under shifting ownership throughout the 1980s. A ready-to-wear line was added in 1982. The company reacquired its perfume business from Revlon but unwisely entered into extensive licensing agreements that put the Balmain name on a wide range of products, diluting the company’s image. In 1993 Oscar de la Renta took on the position of chief designer for the Maison Balmain—the first American to become head designer for a Paris couture house. De la Renta’s first collection for the company, which appeared on the runway in February 1994, was a critical and commercial success. Critics generally agree that de la Renta, who spent nearly a decade at Balmain, succeeded not only in reviving the company’s fortunes, but also in restoring the house’s old reputation for elegance. Oscar de la Renta presented his final collection for Balmain in July 2002. He was succeeded by Laurent Mercier, who was artistic director from 2002 to 2003, and Christophe Lebourg, who was appointed in 2003.
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Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. Couture: The Great Designers. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1985.
Pierre Balmain: 40 années de création. Paris: Musée de la Mode et du Costume, 1985.