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Mercier’s Couture Debut

PARIS — When Laurent Mercier shows his debut couture collection for the house of Balmain here on Tuesday, he will become the newest member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.<br><br>There are only 12 designers working at houses that...

PARIS — When Laurent Mercier shows his debut couture collection for the house of Balmain here on Tuesday, he will become the newest member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.

There are only 12 designers working at houses that meet the strict requirements of the coveted couture appellation awarded by Paris’ governing body of fashion, the Chambre Syndicale.

“I’m very proud. When you do ready-to-wear, you’re one of thousands,” Mercier said between fittings in his studio on Wednesday. “As a couturier, you become one of the select. That’s a fantastic feeling.”

Mercier, 38, joined the venerable brand two seasons ago as its rtw designer. When Oscar de la Renta decided to end his 10-year collaboration with Balmain last July, many speculated that the house would stop couture. But Balmain president and chief executive officer Alain Hivelin decidedinstead to tap Mercier, whose résumé includes stints at Jean Paul Gaultier and Escada.

Mercier, who also designed stage costumes for Lenny Kravitz, said he has found the transition to couture a comfortable one. “I’m more at ease with the way of working in couture,” he said. “It’s a very intimate process. It’s similar to the way I worked when I did costumes: You follow every step closely from the beginning to the end.”

Mercier said he hopes to use the couture to build a unified image for the house that will trickle down from the couture to Balmain’s rtw and fragrances.

“For me, the couture should be the dream from which everything else starts,” said Mercier. “I want to use the couture to project the house into the future and make it more modern as a whole.”

As for the inevitable comparisons with de la Renta’s designs, Mercier said he remains unbothered.

“I think it’s silly to compare us,” said Mercier. “Oscar has an enormous experience. My experience is so small compared to his. When Oscar left, his clients left with him. That leaves me free to create another direction.”

Mercier’s freshman effort mixes influences from the Twenties, Yves Saint Laurent, Japan and Madeleine Vionnet.

This story first appeared in the January 17, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“It’s like cooking,” he said. “You mix up the same old ingredients to try to come up with a new recipe.”

Mercier described his silhouettes as “structured and very graphic. It’s almost all high-waisted pants ensembles and almost all for going out to a party. The style’s not the debutantes’ ball. It’s more about today, more modern. I want Balmain to have more energy.”

He added: “I plan to use the couture as a creative laboratory. Maybe someone will want to wear it — I hope so. But for me, it should be the artistic realization of an idea. It should remain a dream.”