PARIS — Oscar de la Renta wanted his exit as Balmain’s couturier to be low-key, and he got his wish.There were no speeches and no flowers when he took his final bow Tuesday night during couture week here, only a discreet thank-you letter on each seat and a sustained ovation at the conclusion of the Dr. Zhivago-themed show.During an interview earlier in the day in Balmain’s white- and-cream salon, a composed and relaxed de la Renta reflected on his 10 years at the house and elaborated on his reasons for exiting one season early. He also expressed hope that Balmain couture would continue without him. "I enjoyed it. I had a wonderful, wonderful time," he said. "There are a lot of people in this house I’m really, really close to. I will miss them. I loved doing couture, and I think I’m leaving the house in a much stronger position than when I came. I hope there will be a continuity."Balmain president and chief executive Alain Hivelin agreed, but said the future of its couture operation will depend on securing the right design talent. "My main problem is to find a successor to Mr. de la Renta," Hivelin told WWD. "I am sad because I love Oscar. But it’s not a divorce. It’s a new organization. But I have to remember that our success has been built by doing clothes, not a show.""Indeed, since de la Renta became the first American designer to head a couture house 10 years ago, he has made Balmain one of the top-selling couture names in Paris, prized for its smart suits and elegant eveningwear. “This was not a house where I could go berserk and exercise my fantasies,” he said. The house currently sells between 200 and 320 handmade pieces per season.According to sources, several designers have approached Balmain to offer their services for couture, but a search hasn’t been initiated. The house, which has had a revolving door in its ready-to-wear department, is said to be weighing its options carefully before making a decision.Although couture has kept a steady course, the house’s ready-to-wear division has been rudderless in recent years. French designer Laurent Mercier, known variously for his former nightclub alter-ego “Lola,” his rock-star connections and his flair for showmanship, was brought in last year to steer the house in a younger direction. His appointment followed several seasons using a “team approach” in Balmain’s design studio that garnered lukewarm reviews. Before that, Gilles Dufour was at the helm for three seasons, but was fired in March 2000 after showing outfits decorated with the words “bitch” and “whore.”De la Renta said that he had decided to exit Balmain early for both professional and personal reasons. “It’s sort of emotional for me because I love the people here,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m elated.”In his final collection, de la Renta adhered to his long-held philosophy of pragmatic couture. From the start, he directed his collections at clients rather than the press, and this season was no exception. That said, by returning to Russia, land of some of his favorite haute moments, he allowed himself the occasional flourish. Certainly those grand brocades romanced the front-row Ladies who turned out: Deeda Blair, Lee Radziwill, Naty Abascal, Olympia de Rothschild, Marie Chantal of Greece, Alexandra Von Furstenberg, Chantal Miller and Infanta Elena of Spain, among them. And while they may find the pantsuit with a frock coat a bit demonstrative, there are still some events major enough for a grand ballgown.But more likely, the Ladies will go for de la Renta’s suits; once again, he showed plenty, smart, pretty, practical. And the coats — Oscar is one of the few couturiers this season to acknowledge that the realities of winter strike even the rich and pampered among us. While he nodded toward Siberia with more of the rich, embroidered borders and fur trims he loves, he did so with a bit of restraint and minus the Cossack hats, so most looked smart rather than costumey. But every woman comes in out of the cold sometimes. When she’s headed to a très chic affair, she can slide out of an elaborate brocade wrap to reveal a languid gold plissé skirt and blouse. Or she can choose one of Oscar’s delightfully fragile black dresses, all quiet confections of flutter and frills, perfect for flirting the night away.De la Renta is now in a position to devote more of his energies to his 37-year-old fashion house in New York, where sales have grown rapidly over the past five years. At present, the Oscar de la Renta brand generates an estimated $50 million in collection sales plus more than $600 million at retail with licensed products.The designer said that his immediate priorities are to open freestanding stores and to devote more time to his nascent accessories business. “I don’t know how many more years I’m going to have this passion for what I do, but I want to hurry up,” he said with a chuckle. He added that he hopes to open a Madison Avenue flagship next year, as well as shops in Las Vegas and Florida, “where I have a big Latin-American following.” He also cited healthy demand in Europe for his collection and said a Paris boutique is a possibility, too.De la Renta noted that he wants to expand his Pink Label, a ready-to-wear line positioned between the bridge and collection lines. “The collection is doing well, and the bridge collection has been doing well in a market that hasn’t been particularly great for bridge for the past two years,” he noted. “We’re doing about $30 million to $40 million at wholesale.”It’s been tough to juggle his couture responsibilities with minding the store back in New York, de la Renta said. Deadlines have become increasingly onerous, particularly in January, when he has had less than two weeks after Balmain couture to present his ready-to-wear collection in New York. “You cannot design clothes over the telephone,” he said. “And even though my fall collection is selling really well, I felt I could have filled it out and made it even more commercial had I had the time.”What’s more, de la Renta said he values his leisure time, especially being at his home in the Dominican Republic. “Right after Christmas, I have to get on a plane and come here to the rain and the cold,” he said. “I always say Paris is the best place to cultivate nostalgia.”De la Renta actually started his career in couture, working at Balenciaga in Madrid and assisting Antonio Castillo at Lanvin in Paris. Then, too, his charm and his connections were as potent as his design talent. “When I was at Lanvin, I knew practically every woman who bought haute couture, and that’s still the case at Balmain,” he said. “All my friends have always been very loyal to what I do, which is great. Loyalty is the one quality I most appreciate in people.”Georgina Brandolini, managing director of Balmain since 1997, is also widely expected to exit Balmain, although she has not yet made her intentions known.De la Renta, 70, acknowledges that couture isn’t what it used to be. “At the peak of this house, there were 800 people working here,” he said. “All the well-known names worked in couture. Today, the world is a very different place. The most important customer is the working woman, and the dominant product is ready-to-wear.”That said, de la Renta feels couture represents an important tradition and a service with demand. “There is still a woman who wants haute couture,” he said. “It’s wonderful to have something made that will fit you perfectly. The couture is all about hidden luxury. It’s really a lot in the detail and hand-finishing. It may not be visible to the naked eye, but a woman who has it on knows.”"
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