By and  on January 22, 2010

PARIS — Given Christophe Decarnin’s ultrasexy, ready-for-the-disco designs for Balmain, one might expect lots of black lacquer or even mirror balls in his new store concept.

Rather, the French couturier’s original flagship at 44 Rue Francoise 1er has been painstakingly returned to its original 18th-century grandeur, from pale Versailles parquet floors to the elaborate ceiling moldings prized in Parisian apartments. Iconic Forties furniture serves as a nod to when Pierre Balmain first set up shop in 1945, while smoked glass shelves and a tiny television tucked into a wardrobe screens Decarnin’s latest runway looks.

“Christophe wanted to revive the soul of Balmain’s historic headquarters, while linking it to the brand’s future,” said Balmain chairman and chief executive officer Alain Hivelin. “It’s a return to the source.”

The 2,500-square-foot boutique, shuttered for renovation last November, reopened its gold-leaf trimmed doors this week and will be christened with a cocktail party Monday as Paris couture week begins. Market sources estimate the boutique should generate annual revenues of 7 million euros, or $9.9 million at current exchange.

Paris architect Joseph Dirand oversaw the boutique’s transformation at a cost of 1.8 million euros, or $2.6 million at current exchange, which involved scrapping a vaguely Art Deco decor and sourcing 18th-century sculptures and stone floor tiles from French chateaus.

Maximizing the store’s unusual layout of a small entrance and vast upper floor, Dirand sought to create an apartment that unfolds “little by little.”

Hivelin, an earnest executive almost as press-shy as Decarnin, said the new boutique design sets a template that will be reflected in forthcoming Balmain boutiques and shop-in-shops. Projects for 2010 include corners in Harrods and Bergdorf Goodman, plus freestanding stores in Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and Bangkok.

“We have the potential to double this line in two years,” Hivelin said, describing sell-throughs of 100 percent at Harrods and sales growth in excess of 50 percent in recent years.

Yet he was adamant about keeping a tight rein on distribution of a collection that includes artfully destroyed T-shirts retailing for $1,624, jackets from $5,333 up to a runway dress for $59,856.

“I feel that if we extend the distribution too much on this line, we might endanger the exclusivity our customers have the right to expect from our brand,” he said, raising a finger for emphasis. The strategy is to grow revenues through the roughly 250 doors that carry the top women’s line, while gradually expanding the product range with accessories, including shoes, bags and eyewear. Men’s wear is sold in about 110 doors.

That said, Hivelin is quietly testing future growth avenues for the brand, recognizing the nosebleed prices of Balmain’s top collection puts it out of the reach of many potential clients, particularly in fast-growing markets, including China and Southeast Asia.

Balmain already quietly sells a Mongolian cashmere range in China, and will soon “test” Blue Label, an apparel collection for fall-winter licensed to Balness, a French producer, and priced about 40 to 50 percent less than the top line.

Hivelin said he plans to continue cutting “old licenses” having trimmed a dozen last year, to concentrate on select “larger businesses with larger partners. We’re looking to reintegrate the global image of the brand."

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