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De la Renta to Exit Balmain

PARIS -- Another couture week, another farewell show.<P>WWD has learned that Balmain will confirm the departure of couturier Oscar de la Renta at its show here Tuesday, the second day of couture week. The house is expected to thank de la Renta for...

PARIS — Another couture week, another farewell show.

WWD has learned that Balmain will confirm the departure of couturier Oscar de la Renta at its show here Tuesday, the second day of couture week. The house is expected to thank de la Renta for his contributions in a letter or press release distributed at the show.

De la Renta was the first American designer to head a couture house here, arriving at Balmain in 1992 and scoring unprecedented publicity for the 57-year-old brand — as well as selling scores of expensive, handmade outfits to some of the world’s most prominent social figures.

De la Renta could not be reached for comment at press time. As reported, the designer had informed Balmain of his intentions to leave following major back surgery last year. His contract had called for him to also do a summer collection next January, but he recently negotiated an early exit.

Sources said de la Renta is eager to focus his energies on his fast-growing signature business in New York. Upcoming projects include the launch of home furnishings this fall and the opening of freestanding boutiques next year. De la Renta founded his own house 37 years ago and growth has been rapid in recent 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.

News of de la Renta’s retirement from couture, coming six months after Yves Saint Laurent staged his swan-song, 40-year retrospective, is bound to prompt renewed debate about the future of couture, given that many designers are at or beyond typical retirement age.

At Balmain, de la Renta brought the house new credibility and a long list of boldface names. Just a few of the front-row regulars are Lynn Wyatt, Deeda Blair, Madame Claude Pompidou, Doris Brynner and Susan Gutfreund.

Expected at the Balmain show Monday are Princess Marie Chantal of Greece, Alexandra von Furstenberg, Princess Firyal of Jordan, Danielle Steele, Gutfreund and Madame Pompidou.

While couture houses are loathe to provide figures, sources indicate Balmain typically sells 200 to 320 ensembles each season. The numbers are considered high and attributed to the fact that Balmain has a strong reputation for smart daywear and prices slightly under its competitors. Last January, couture sales at Balmain increased about 10 percent, as reported. Prices for a couture suit generally run about $18,000 and up.

Meanwhile, de la Renta’s departure is also likely to raise questions about the future direction of Balmain, majority owned by its president, Alain Hivelin.

Sources said Balmain is considering winding down its couture activities once it has completed orders on de la Renta’s last collection. In that case, Balmain’s creative direction would stem from Laurent Mercier, the designer brought in last year to take over the ready-to-wear reins and steer the house in a more youthful direction. He showed his first collection for the house last March during Paris Fashion Week.

Market estimates peg Balmain’s direct revenues at about $27 million.

Although couture has kept a steady course, the house’s rtw division has been in turmoil. Mercier was brought in following a few seasons using a “team approach” in its design studio; those collections 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.””