Balmain Builds on Its Strengths

Balmain's Christophe Decarnin is said to regularly dip into the photo library while also keeping a strong focus on the future.

PARIS — A strong-shouldered jacket can do wonders for one’s confidence.

This story first appeared in the October 1, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Take Balmain’s Christophe Decarnin, whose trademark peaked jackets and fiercely sexy minidresses have catapulted him and the French label to new heights, with its show today one of the hottest of the week.

Now, the privately held company is working behind the scenes to bring the business in line with the buzz around the name — what some have even dubbed “Balmania.”

Next month, Balmain’s two-story flagship on the Rue François 1er will be shuttered for two months for a top-to-bottom renovation. And chairman and chief executive Alain Hivelin is reviewing the Paris house’s network of licenses, guiding certain partners in line with Decarnin’s rock ’n’ roll aesthetic, and phasing out those who don’t cut the mustard.

The brand signed a women’s footwear license with Giuseppe Zanotti, effective since the spring 2009 season, which grew out of a runway collaboration stretching back to Decarnin’s first show in 2006. A men’s shoe line could be added soon. New for next season is a capsule eyewear collection developed with Oliver Peoples.

In total, Balmain has around 20 licenses in Asia and the Middle East, including scarves, small leather goods, ties and men’s tailoring. In an interview, Hivelin, who became the house’s main shareholder in July 2005, declined to give sales figures, but said Balmain has been profitable since 2005 and logged total annual sales growth of around 60 percent the last three years.

Since Decarnin’s arrival, sales of Balmain’s women’s ready-to-wear have doubled each season, Hivelin said. Ditto for sales of the men’s wear line, which was relaunched by Decarnin in July 2008 with such styles as destroyed T-shirts, zippered jeans, plaid shirts and washed biker jackets. Following the departure of its couturier, Oscar de la Renta, in 2002, it was Hivelin who — much to the disgruntlement of Balmain’s other shareholders — proposed a contemporary, more affordable take on couture for its future strategy.

Late in 2005, Decarnin, who had been closely tracked by Hivelin throughout his career as head designer of women’s rtw at Paco Rabanne, was tapped for just that role. And while the two men “barely exchanged 30 words” during the first three months following Decarnin’s arrival, Hivelin said they share the same values: “Style, elegance and perfection.”

Hivelin describes Decarnin, 46, as calm and strong. With his permastubble and reedy silhouette, the painfully shy designer, who can often be spotted mingling with the French Vogue crew (the magazine’s fashion director Emmanuelle Alt is said to be the house’s stylist), likes to dodge the spotlight.

“He wants to protect himself; not to get caught up in the circus. To have the time to create, and I can understand that more than anyone,” commented Hivelin, who cited his main concern is freeing Decarnin of constraints.

To that end, a sprawling new 5,000-square-feet research and development studio is being set up in a neighboring building, with a studio recently opened down the road for the men’s team. On the creative front, it’s Decarnin who runs the show. “He is the master of arts, deus ex machina,” said Hivelin.

As for the Art Deco-era boutique, a grand overhaul by architect Joseph Dirand will include chimneys transplanted from chateaus around France; authentic Louis XIV or XV parquet flooring, and a mix of antique and contemporary design objects.

Balmain is distributed in more than 300 doors worldwide, including Harrods, Barneys New York, Corso Como and Lane Crawford.

Averyl Oates, chief buying director of Harvey Nichols, London, said the store has a constant waiting list for Balmain, and this fall’s black tuxedo jacket sold out within a couple of hours of hitting the shop floor.

“[Decarnin] is, without a doubt, one of the most influential designers of the moment, if not the most. The entire fall season rocker chick theme is all due to him,” asserted Kirna Zabête’s Beth Buccini. Initially concerned about the label’s high prices, Buccini said she and store co-owner Sarah Easley were “absolutely shocked” by the commercial success of the brand.

“It was a giant leap of faith….The crazy big-ticket items have all sold too — $8,900 jackets! $5,900 capes! Any jackets in fact,” said Buccini. “The pricing certainly excludes numerous customers, but the ones who can afford it completely get it….Money is no object, and they only want the best.”

Upon his arrival at the house, Decarnin took charge of the conservation and digital archiving of the contents of Balmain’s “museum,” which boasts some 12,000 couture pieces dating from 1945 to 2002. The designer is said to regularly dip into the photo library and calls in pieces from the depot. But central to his vision is fashioning the future, according to Hivelin, and the research and development are reflected in the high prices. Citing the house’s recent notorious $2,000 ripped jean, he noted certain pieces receive hundreds of hours of embroidery, and some styles have been reworked up to 50 times before they hit retail. “People know that what they see on stage is couture,” said Hivelin.