The new era at Paris’s sex-charged fashion house Balmain is beginning to take shape, with Olivier Rousteing being tapped as the label’s new designer. Rousteing, who joined Balmain in 2009 and is currently in charge of women’s wear, replaces Christophe Decarnin, who left earlier this month due to strategic disputes with chairman Alain Hivelin. Before joining Balmain, Rousteing worked for five years at Roberto Cavalli, which should serve him well in delivering the decadent rock-inflected glamour that became the label’s trademark under Decarnin.Jacques Brinon/Associated Press
Decarnin will no doubt be a tough act to follow. Marcelo Maquieira, the buyer for Ennu in Amsterdam, knew the collection was extraordinary when a customer was robbed outside the shop a few years ago. “She had just bought a very expensive Balmain piece and her car was parked nearby, but as soon as she left the store a couple forced her to hand over the bag. They had obviously been watching and they wanted the Balmain.”
Maquieira has been buying Balmain for his store since it segued into rock chic mode with Decarnin in 2005. It’s been a whirlwind six years, he says. “They have so many handicaps; there’s very little advertising, no look books or DVDs of the show, but we have consistently had 90 percent sell through. A track record like that makes us happy to take risks and ignore the small stuff.”
When Maquieira found a jacket he liked in last fall’s collection he took the unprecedented step and bought six of them. Considering that the small shop has about 10 faithful Balmain customers, it was a risky move but one that paid off. “We got on the phone and sold five of them in one week,” he said. “With Balmain it’s basically an in and out proposition.”Pierre Verdy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The jury is still out however on whether the loss of its star designer will have an adverse effect on the brand’s sales world wide. Bergdorf Goodman, perhaps trying to capitalize on the news of Decarnin’s departure, recently made the label available online. “Customers have changed,” says Maquieira. “Before they used to spend two hours in the store and look at everything. We had time to explain that this coat was made by an Italian designer who buried it in his backyard to get just the right color. Now they come in and they already know what they want and from which brand. I’m willing to bet that none of my Balmain customers know Decarnin’s name. If the brand continues to give them what they want — status and sex appeal — then they don’t care who the designer is.”
Claudine Barnabe who buys Balmain for her Paris store L’Espionne felt the winds of change with Decarnin’s Fall pre-collection, presented last January. “There was no rock ‘n’ roll on the runway in March,” Barnabe says. “I bought the collection anyway because you don’t punch someone when they’re down, but I was very disappointed.” Although both concede that what drives fashion is change they also say that Balmain has been a winner because it filled a need: chic and sexy pieces for a woman over 30 who gets the same kind of kick out of clothes as men do with watches and cars.
“You have to remember,” says Maquieira. “Nobody needs this stuff. With a budget of $5,000 my customers would probably spend everything on one piece. So if the spark isn’t there, she’s out the door to book a spa vacation in Thailand.”