Pierre Balmain was always fascinated by the Orient, which was an inspiration for his very first fashion collection in Paris. No surprise then, that he would make it to the Philippines in 1969 to stage a fashion show at the Hotel Intercontinental in Manila with former First Lady Imelda Marcos as guest of honor.
Years earlier, he was already in Thailand, where he met Jim Thompson who introduced him to Thai silk and when Queen Sirikit was planning a world tour with King Bhumibol in 1960, he was tapped to design her wardrobe.
He became known for sumptuously embellished ball gowns worn by royalty and film stars, as well as for his quiet, tailored suits. He became highly successful and gained prominence with this understated elegance, which is evident in the 1954 wedding gown he made for Audrey Hepburn on display in the ongoing exhibit “Intimate Audrey” at S Maison in Conrad Manila. He always said that “fashion was evolution, not revolution,” but when he opened his couture house in 1945, he was, along with Cristobal Balenciaga, Jacques Fath, and Christian Dior, one of the wunderkinds who revitalized couture after the German occupation.
Although Dior popularized the “New Look” in 1947, Balmain already showed the same silhouette in his collection two years before, moving away from the square shoulders and slim skirts of the ’30s and early ’40s to make clothes with soft, rounded shoulders, small waistlines and bouffant skirts—an Edwardian romanticism that women all over the world embraced after seeing very little change in fashion for a decade.
Born in 1914 in the small French alpine village of St. Jean de Maurienne, Pierre had an idyllic childhood; his father inherited a drapery business and had a boutique run by his mother, exposing him early on to fabrics and fashion. The sudden death of his father in 1921, however, would shock the family with the reality that they were virtually penniless, left with a business that had been failing for years. It was Pierre’s inheritance of a box of theater costumes and growing up absorbing different modes of fashion that would set him up for life.
At age 11, he won a scholarship to a boarding school in Chambéry where, aside from the usual subjects, he acquired skills in dancing and riding that he would later find useful in penetrating Paris’ fashionable set. Weekends spent with his uncle in the spa town of Aix-les-Bains also gave him the right exposure to society women, whose dresses would stir his interest in couture.
Despite being set on a fashion career, he enrolled to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts at the behest of his mother, only to drop out eventually when he was introduced to the designer Edward Molyneux, who gave him his first job.
He was derailed again after three years when he was called to military service but upon his return from the war, he easily got a job with Lucien Lelong, who also hired Christian Dior.
A close friendship with Dior led to a plan to open an atelier together but at the last minute, Dior backed out, causing such bitterness and resentment that led to speculation that there was more to their relationship than business. Balmain nevertheless pressed on with the opening of his house and presented his debut collection in 1945, a lavish and luxurious collection that defied the modest, post-war clothing of the day, praised by the influential writer Gertrude Stein, who wrote in Vogue that the show “was a new sensation of the Paris Couture.”
Stein’s partner, Alice B. Toklas, opined that “suddenly there was the awakening to a new understanding of what ‘mode’ really was, the embellishment and the intensification of women’s form and charm.” This caused a buzz, catching the attention of photographer Cecil Beaton and illustrator Christian Berard, fashion elites who spread the word about “this fantastic new couturier,” virtually establishing Balmain’s name in the fashion firmament.
The success of his first collection attracted clients as well as talents who wanted to apprentice with him, leading to the discovery of Karl Lagerfeld in 1947, jumpstarting the career of another fashion legend.
By 1950, the first runway show of Balmain took place in the US coinciding with the opening of a new boutique in New York, making him even more famous among celebrities and Hollywood stars.
In the late ’50s, he introduced shorter cocktail dresses, which were considered too provocative at that time, and became known for exotic motifs, employing complex oriental ornamentation of arabesque, floral, and geometric weaves and patterns that distinguish his work. Despite naysayers like Chanel who said, “Well, provincial women have to dress, too,” Balmain’s customer base increased to include American, British, and even South American women.
His design of the wardrobe of Queen Sirikit for the 1960 world tour got a lot of press internationally but some thought the queen had little to do with French high fashion, so it didn’t do much to increase his status back home. In any case, Balmain focused more on financial success rather than making waves the way Dior, Balenciaga, and Dior did with their innovations. Unlike the snobbish appeal of these designers who kept a distance from customers, Balmain met all the right people and established himself as a society couturier.
His many triumphs—creating “The New French Style” with the highest standard of workmanship, focusing more on construction and clean lines instead of flashy, overdecorated pieces; being one of the first Paris couturiers to venture into the American market; pioneering a perfume business, including Revlon’s first; his appointment as a chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur—placed him firmly in the history of French high fashion.
Sadly, by the time he died of liver cancer in 1982 at age 68, he was no longer seen as a strong player in the fashion scene. There were 130 manufacturers worldwide making over 60 products bearing his name, including luggage, jewelry and menswear, but perhaps this spread him out too thinly and was not highly regarded by tastemakers. He lived as he died, however, working hard up to the last moment, finishing his last collection on his deathbed. And his work ethic has been an inspiration to all those who took over through the years, from his lover, Erik Mortensen, to Oscar de la Renta to the current Olivier Rousteing, who has been making headlines for the house since he started in 2011.