GILLES GETS READY
Byline: Daniel Peres / Sarah Raper
PARIS — Gilles Dufour is over the moon. After 15 years at Chanel, most of them spent running the design studio for Karl Lagerfeld, he’s toasting a new career at the house of Balmain.
“It’s a great new adventure,” he said over lunch on the Ritz terrace Friday. “And I have the experience of Chanel behind me.”
Last week, after a month-long negotiation with Chanel over his severance package, Dufour signed with Balmain to design the ready-to-wear collection, beginning Sept. 1.
Although he’s widely regarded for his exceptional taste and an uncanny ability to make a woman look her best, this is the first time Dufour has taken the helm of a collection.
And the fashion establishment is enthusiastic, judging from the flowers — a big bouquet of peonies from Claudia Schiffer, roses from Tom Ford. “Michael Kors was great. I ran into him on the street and it turns out that his studio at Celine is right around the corner from mine,” Dufour said.
“I’ve never seen him so excited,” said Schiffer, who jetted in last week for an afternoon of shopping with Dufour. “I’ve already told him, ‘Anything I can do, the answer is yes.”‘
The model was one of a small group of intimates Dufour turned to while mulling whether to accept the Balmain post. Just the day before he signed, in fact, Catherine Deneuve coached the designer through the fine print.
Dufour, who jokes that he stopped counting at age 49, won’t show his first collection for the house until next March, but he’s already brimming with ideas.
“What I want to do is citywear. Tom Ford is doing this and so is Prada,” he said. “I want to do the French version of Ralph Lauren. In a Parisian way, of course, using only the highest quality of fabric. It will be wearable, simple, modern and fun — it has to be fun.”
He doesn’t have a muse yet, but looks to his own twentysomething nieces, Mathilde and Pauline Favier, for inspiration. He also wants to design for the jet-setting Ladies — and he knows them all.
“I want to do small, affordable pieces like skirts and pants and some knitwear for the young women,” he said. “I can also do some suits and dresses that will be more expensive for those social ladies who like to go out.”
Dufour said he had considered four job offers — he declined to discuss particulars — but chose Balmain partly because he thinks highly of Georgina Brandolini, who is the managing director of the house, and partly because of “the magic of the Balmain name.” In recent years, however, Balmain has suffered several changes in ownership and management. Dufour’s predecessor at the house, Andrew Gn, lasted only one season.
The one bright spot at Balmain has been Oscar de la Renta’s couture collection. Some skeptics say there may not be room for two fashion stars at Balmain, but both designers insist nothing could be further from the truth.
“Obviously I’m delighted,” said de la Renta, who’s been yachting in Italy. “We’ve known each other for many, many years, and I’m sure he’s going to do a great job. He has a great sense of style and he knows the Balmain customer.”
Dufour is just as complimentary of de la Renta. “Oscar is doing a fantastic job,” he said. “He’s allowed the sleeping beauty to wake up. It’s amazing to see how many women at social events are wearing Balmain couture.”
People who know them both say Balmain is lucky to have such a duo. “Oscar has taken Balmain to another level,” said C.Z. Guest. “And Gilles can only add to that. Gilles doesn’t know what bad taste is. He’s a helluva guy.”
But for all the excitement, Dufour can’t help being sentimental about his career at Chanel and his long relationship with Lagerfeld.
“It was wonderful to work with Karl,” said Dufour. “He is a friend. It’s not a divorce, but it’s a bit like a separation, and a separation is always sad.”
For two years, fashion insiders had sensed some tension in the Lagerfeld-Dufour team. Dufour explains there was never a falling out, just a drifting apart.
“I will like Karl for my life because he has been so wonderful to me. I learned a lot from him — everything,” Dufour said thoughtfully.
“He has a very modern approach. He’s very courageous. Even when something is working very well, he’s not afraid to stop and break the rules.”
In a sense, Dufour at Balmain will be following in Lagerfeld’s footsteps. When he was 17, Lagerfeld was hired by Balmain and designed ready-to-wear there for three years until he joined Patou.
Dufour met Lagerfeld in the Seventies at a tea given by sculptors Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne. After completing his studies at the decorative arts school in Paris, Dufour fulfilled his military service in the navy, where he was assigned to redecorate recruiting offices.
He assisted Pierre Cardin and Andre Oliver on one couture collection and had several designing stints at lesser-known companies before approaching Lagerfeld for a job. He helped design fabrics for Chloe, collaborated on film and theater costumes — once at the request of Rudolf Nureyev — and then joined Lagerfeld after his first collection at Chanel in 1983.
The two have not spoken since Dufour’s departure from Chanel a month ago. “I miss not seeing him,” said Dufour. “But I’m sure we will come back to each other because we are so close.”
Reportedly, Chanel will not name a successor to Dufour.
Lagerfeld could not be reached for comment.
Some wonder whether Dufour can do it without Lagerfeld. “It’s true that I have worked as part of a successful team, but now I want to express myself, and it’s about time. I know how to design a collection,” Dufour said.
“When you’re a Scorpio and you really try, you will succeed.”