PARIS--Erich Fayer, owner of the Pierre Balmain fashion and fragrance house, died Tuesday as he had lived--mysteriously.
As late as Wednesday afternoon, the house of Balmain insisted that Fayer was still alive. However, several highly reliable sources confirmed to WWD that Fayer had, in fact, died in a hospital in Brussels, finally succumbing to the weak heart that plagued him throughout his latter years.
His death leaves the future of Balmain, as well as the status of its which celebrates its half-century this year, up in the air.
The low-profile Fayer, who never gave an interview during the periods he was owner of Balmain, detested being photographed and once even ran out of a Balmain couture show to escape a French photographer.
To the end, Fayer remained an enigma. His exact age, nationality and birthplace were a guarded secret. He was described as a French Canadian, but was reportedly born in Poland. It's understood that he escaped from Poland during World War II, after losing several family members in Nazi concentration camps. The source of his fortune was a subject of widespread speculation, with candidates including everything from apparel to cattle to arms dealing.
According to one source, he was 71 when he died.
His investment vehicle, Zanimob Inc., a Montreal-based wholesaler of women's and children's clothing, first acquired the Balmain fashion business in 1986 from Leo Gros, a French knitwear manufacturer. The following year, Fayer bought Balmain's perfume business from a division of the French bank Paribas.
In January 1990, he sold all of Balmain to businessman Alain Chevalier for $115 million (550 million francs), an astonishing sum for a house that was barely breaking even on sales of $33.3 million (160 million francs). But less than 18 months later, with the house hemorrhaging from losses, Fayer was able to buy it back for one-third of that price.
In November of 1992, Fayer hired Oscar de la Renta as Balmain's couturier, a move that many in Paris interpreted as an attempt to increase the value and prestige of the house before selling it yet again.
According to several sources, Fayer's wife Elizabeth was very anxious over her husband's heart condition and wanted him to sell off the fashion house and adopt an easier lifestyle. Recent visitors to Balmain noted that Fayer seemed very weak and spoke with a rasping voice.
His choice of de la Renta certainly garnered a great deal of publicity for Balmain, and the designer has produced five collections for the house. But, sources said, Fayer and the designer had an acerbic relationship, at best. In a recent bizarre twist, Fayer admitted last month that he did not even know if de la Renta had made a collection for fall '95.
De la Renta responded that he had, in fact, produced a collection and that it was being presented by appointment in Paris.
Fayer further expanded his couture and fragrance stable in 1992 with a $5.3 million purchase of a majority stake in the beauty firm Alfin Inc.
His beauty company, Produits Parfums et CosmAtiques Universels LtAe, Montreal, acquired a 60.6 percent interest in Alfin through a subsidiary, Fine Fragrances Inc. Alfin's product lines include the Dilys fragrance by Laura Ashley and Adrien Arpel cosmetics.
Fayer is survived by his wife Elisabeth, who serves on Alfin's board, and four sons.

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