In a huge white tent in the gardens of the Louvre late last month a standing-room-only crush of journalists and clothing buyers struggled for a view of the runway, where models displayed the latest creations of the Paris fashion house of Pierre Balmain. The sleek, long-legged mannequins displayed 173 new outfits created by Balmain designer Erik Mortensen.
They ranged from exotic ballerina skirts to elegant polka-dot silks and satins perfect for an afternoon at the horse races.
But throughout the 10-day show, which included some of France’s top fashion houses, the applause was loudest for a new collection of ingenious but eminently wearable clothing. Balmain, now under Canadian ownership, has suddenly reemerged as a house for the fashion industry to watch.
Following founder Pierre Balmain’s death five years ago, Balmain lost its focus and started to produce what industry analysts said were staid, predictable designs. As it did, it became the forgotten member of France’s elite club of high-fashion houses. But in July, 1986, Eric Fayer, a reclusive Montreal businessman who includes in his holdings a $50-million shopping centre in that city, took over the firm, which last year had sales of $132 million, and transformed it with an injection of cash and what his colleagues described as his “hard-nosed” business sense. “The change around here is Canadian,” said Balmain president Claude Brezillon. “For years this firm had no evolution, no sparkle. We needed some new life, and Fayer has provided it.”
Traditionally, leading Paris fashion houses have concentrated on design, while the actual production of their work was carried out under licensing agreements with various clothing factories around the world. But Fayer charted a new course. He diversified his operations away from strictly fashion into a line of luxury products including perfume and accessories. As part of that strategy, he bought back the rights to Balmain perfumes, which had been sold to Revlon about 25 years ago, and added five other lines of perfume. At the same time, he acquired one of the most modern perfume
plants in France, which is now producing Balmain’s product line.
Fayer has also cancelled licensing agreements that have allowed non-Balmain firms to produce its products. Factories in Third World countries were churning out high-fashion designs with second-rate craftsmanship, which damaged the reputation of the
designer label. As an alternative, through his Montreal-based firm, Zanimob Holdings Inc., Fayer bought d’Ana Cote d’Azure, a modern clothing factory in the south of France which specialized in high-quality tailoring. All Balmain lines are now produced there under direct head-office control.
A third Fayer thrust is the unique ready-to-wear collection that was greeted warmly at its unveiling under canvas at the Louvre. Most firms, including Balmain until recently, contract out the less expensive, ready-towear lines to lesser designers, freeing their stars to work on the exclusive, ultra-expensive high-fashion styles. But under designer Mortensen, Balmain is moving into a whole new con-
cept of fashion—a so-called elite, or upscale, ready-to-wear line.
The new line is appearing at a time when many industry analysts are saying that high fashion has a shrinking market. At the same time, too many fashion houses are producing products for the traditional ready-to-wear—now dubbed “fastwear” —market. Balmain’s new elite line will cater to a new market: the woman who is not a member of the aristocracy but still has enough money for higher-priced fashion.
Fayer is also planning to enlarge his profile in Paris by opening a new boutique in the fabulous Faubourg Saint-Honoré—the retail showcase of Paris fashion. It will carry his elite ready-to-wear line as well as a full range of luxury Balmain products. The new elite outfits will sell at prices running from 25to 30-per-cent more than traditional ready-towear lines, which will still be sold in boutiques and department stores.
The new marketing approach, according to Brezillon, puts Balmain at the “head of the pack.” He noted that only industry-leading Yves Saint Laurent is linking perfumes with fashion, through his recent re-acquisition of YSL perfumes from Charles of the Ritz. Fayer is also attempting to I widen his grip on the still| emerging elite line with his investment in the youth-oriented Ted Lapidus house, where he already holds a minority interest and is jockeying for control. Fayer also represents a new trend in the ownership of the French fashion houses. Brezillon said that the influx of foreign capital, represented by entrepreneurs such as Fayer, is internationalizing the industry. Increasingly, firms outside of France are buying into the sector, but are leaving the French in charge of design. And Brezillon said that he feels lucky to be working with a foreigner like Fayer who at least speaks his language and shares some of the French culture. “His motivation was certainly partly profit,” said Brezillon. “But he has a sort of artist’s temperament and simply wanted to indulge in investing in some of the finer things in life.”
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