PARIS — Balmain’s couture guessing game is over: The house has named Laurent Mercier to replace Oscar de la Renta as its couturier, house president and chief executive Alain Hivelin said Wednesday.

Mercier, 38, joined the house two seasons ago as its ready-to-wear designer. January will mark his couture debut.

"We wanted one designer to pilot both the couture and ready to wear," Hivelin said. "I think it’s only natural that Laurent should take over from Oscar."

Hivelin said Mercier "has evolved rapidly and proved his technical mastery" since arriving.

"I don’t expect him to fill Oscar’s shoes," Hivelin said. "That’s not the question. I have immense respect for Oscar. We will have to establish a new clientele. I don’t believe that we can achieve that in one collection."

De la Renta’s final couture show at Balmain was in July, ending a fruitful, 10-year collaboration. With his signature elegant, client-focused approach, he built the house into one of Paris’s top-selling couture names.

Hivelin said Balmain sold only about 30 dresses a season before de la Renta’s arrival. When he left, as many as 300 outfits were being sold.

De la Renta also provided a pillar of stability while the house chewed through a list of rtw designers, including Andrew Gn and Gilles Dufour.

Before Mercier’s arrival, Balmain’s rtw had been designed by a "team" supervised by managing director Georgina Brandolini, who left the house last month.

"Laurent has to find his own voice and his own way," Hivelin said. "I expect it to take some time for him to establish a new story."

Mercier’s résumé includes separate three-year stints at Jean Paul Gaultier and Escada. He is also known for his former nightclub alter ego "Lola" and for designing rock star Lenny Kravitz’s stage costumes.

Mercier earned several industry accolades, including the prestigious ANDAM award, for his own brand, Laurent Mercier Deluxe, which he discontinued when he accepted the Balmain job.

So far, he has tried to give the house a younger feel. His first two shows, however, earned mixed reviews.Mercier said couture is close to his heart.

"I feel more at ease with the couture process," he said. "I love the tactile nature of couture, of working with the ateliers. That’s what I’ve always been good at and enjoyed the most."

He said he plans to use couture to build the house’s overall image. "That’s what couture is about today. I don’t expect Oscar’s customers to stick with Balmain now that he’s gone."

To wit, Mercier said he would feature "more fantasy than Oscar did. Oscar’s couture was very realistic and beautiful. I will have a different voice."

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