French fashion designer Pierre Balmain was born on May 18, 1914. He was studying architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1934 when Edward Molyneux offered him a job. He had already undertaken some freelance design drawing work for Robert Piguet in previous years, but his post at Molyneux saw him abandon his studies. After five years, he joined Lucien Lelong and worked throughout the war alongside Christian Dior.
Balmain opened his own Maison right after the war ended in 1945, a veritable year of crisis for the haute couture industry. Yet his first collection was one of the few that managed to attract favorable reviews that year – the most famous and arguably most influential one written by his friend American writer Gertrude Stein. He showcased long cloche skirts and small waists, hinting at things to come. His elegant yet wearable clothes gained him immediate success and celebrity customers, including the Duchess of Windsor.
The house became known for its daytime classics, but especially for its opulent and luxurious evening gowns that earned him the press title “the king of French fashion,” or “le roi de la mode français” (luh rwa duh lah mowed frahn-seh). Like those of his contemporaries, his designs had a sculpural quality that presented an uber-feminine essence. His use of luxurious silk brocades gave the dresses a shape of their own. He offset their stiffness through layering with delicate laces and with the resplendent finery and exquisite embroideries for which the Maison was most famous. His sophistication was particularly popular in the United States, where his designs were felt to embody Parisian ladylike chic – the perfect 1950s jolie madame. He capitalized on this reputation by selling prêt-à-porter lines in North America that earned him the Neiman Marcus Fashion award in 1955.
By the 1960s, Balmain had started presenting more pared-down shapes in line with the current fashion. He continued to make extravagant evening wear for theater and movie productions, for Hollywood actresses, and most famously for Queen Sirikit of Thailand, who all continued to turn to him for gowns befitting award ceremonies or official occasions. While Balmain was no exceptional design innovator, his version of Parisian elegance summed up a decade, furthermore, his international outlook and early ventures in prêt-à-porter marked him out as a truly modern designer.
Fit for a Queen: Her Majesty Queen Sirkit’s Creations by Balmain (affiliate link)