Canadian Fashion Connection – Erich Fayer and Balmain

During his lifetime Canadian financer Erich Fayer was a bit of a mystery man. He was rarely interviewed and never talked about his past. Only after his death did it become known that Fayer was a Polish-born Jewish refugee who came to Canada in the early 1970s by way of Panama. Where or how Fayer made his money was never clear, but his Montreal-based company, Produits Parfums et Cosmetiques Universels, had many assets in its holdings including a $50-million Montreal shopping centre. In July 1986 Fayer bought the Paris fashion house of Balmain with an eye to resurrecting the label’s prestige – the way Lagerfeld had resurrected Chanel in 1983.

Balmain had been one of Paris’ leading fashion ateliers when it was founded in 1946 by its namesake Pierre Balmain. However, it lost its lustre over the years, especially after Pierre’s death in 1982 when Balmain’s life partner and business assistant, Erik Mortensen, became the house designer. While Mortensen kept loyal clients happy he failed to make waves in the fashion press. 

Fayer diversified production into a line of luxury products including accessories and perfume, and bought back the rights to the original Balmain perfumes that had been sold to Revlon in the early 1960s. By 1987 he had cancelled licensing agreements with companies that were churning out Balmain designs using second-rate craftsmanship, damaging the Balmain image. Fayer bought d’Ana Cote d’Azure, a high-end clothing manufacturer in the south of France to produce all of the Balmain lines including Balmain Ivoire, a luxury ready-to-wear line created with the American market in mind (see video below of Fall 1989 Balmain Ivoire fashion show.)

Instead of contracting out ready-to-wear collections to lesser designers for the growing ‘fastwear’ market (as it was called in 1987), Balmain’s ready-to-wear collections were now designed under Mortensen to retain an elite, upscale chic that would be sold for 25% – 30% more than ready-to-wear had been previously priced. Twenty-two year old Hervé Pierre was hired to assist Mortensen with the increased designing responsibilities.

The influx of new ideas and capital re-invigorated the house of Balmain and ushered in an era of foreign capital investments into long-standing Paris fashion houses. However, everything wasn’t working smoothly behind the scenes at Balmain. In March 1990 Alistair Blair was hired to design the Balmain Ivoire luxury ready-to-wear collection, allowing Mortensen to devote his work exclusively to the couture collection. 

That same year, Fayer sold Balmain to Alain Chevalier, a French financer from the Louis Vuitton group, only to buy it back a year later in June 1991 at a greatly reduced price. Mortensen however, was no longer with Balmain when the company was purchased back. Hervé Pierre had been made in charge of creating Balmain’s couture collections for 1991 and spring 1992. 

Fayer then brought on board Oscar de la Renta as Balmain’s lead designer in early 1992. De la Renta, who had established himself in New York in 1966 and had only shown his own collection in Paris for the first time in March 1991, became the first American designer to take over at a Paris fashion house. He remained at Balmain until 2002. 

Erich Fayer died in Brussels on April 6, 1995 from a heart attack.

Alber Elbaz (1961 – 2021)

Alber Elbaz with Meryl Streep in 2014 as he is handed his Fashion Group International award. Streep, who is wearing Lanvin, said “if what you’ve made me feel over the years is multiplied by all the other women whose lives you’ve enhanced, I think you should get this every year.” 

Fashion designer Alber Elbaz has passed away from Covid-19.

Elbaz was born in Morocco and moved to Israel with his family when he was 10 years old. After studying at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design he moved to New York in 1985 to work for Geoffrey Beene. In 1996 he moved to Paris to work at Guy Laroche. He became the creative director at Yves Saint Laurent in 1998 and in 2001 he joined Lanvin. 

Elbaz revitalized the dying fashion house of Lanvin – the oldest French fashion house in continuous existence that had been reduced to relying on men’s ready-to-wear and fragrances. During his 14 year tenure, Elbaz turned Lanvin into a creative and commercial success, and established signature trademarks for a modern Lanvin style, including exposed zippers and grosgrain ribbon trim. 

Fissures in the relationship between Elbaz and management grew into chasms, and Elbaz was ousted in 2015 after a loss in projected net profits. A complicated lawsuit followed that claimed there was a lack of investment strategy and that the projected profits were unrealistic, while blame was put from the other side onto Elbaz for poor sales of accessories. Ultimately, the real problem was a difference in opinion over priorities and in similar cases, the creative director is often held accountable for a decline in sales.

After years of inactivity, Elbaz just recently established his new label, AZ Factory.

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Ramona Rull

Left: model Donna DeMarco wears a Ramona Rull dress with Sheesha work. Right: Ramona Rull wearing a wood-block printed cotton ‘at home’ dress, Toronto, April, 1979

Several years ago we inherited a collection of caftan and caftan-like dresses from a friend who loved the style. A few of them were labelled Ramona Rull, and the quality was particularly interesting, but I couldn’t find anything about the name on the label. Fortunately, thanks to Fashion History Museum remote researcher Lynn Ranieri, she managed to find a LOT of information about Ramona Rull and her career as a manufacturer:

Ramona Mary Rull was born into a Eurasian family of Hong Kong clothing manufacturers on August 5, 1933. In 1965, Ramona moved to New York and took a job at the United Nations. However, the fashion industry was in her blood and in 1968 she opened a boutique on Madison Avenue selling clothes made in Hong Kong from textiles she sourced across Asia. 

In 1971, Pakistan House International (a government agency), financed a trip for her to Pakistan to see what they could offer to encourage the export of Pakistani textiles. That same year Ramona closed her boutique and went into the wholesale manufacturing of cotton clothes made from vegetable-dye patterns printed with traditional wood-blocks. Sometimes her clothes also featured decorative work, like sheesha (mirrorwork). The dresses were manufactured in Lahore and Karachi using patterns for the export market that showcased the textile, using simple designs like slight A-line dresses with sash belts, caftans, and shifts with side slits. 

Her new manufacturing and importing business was called ‘Ramona Creations’. Over the next two decades she would travel to Asia for four to six weeks, three times per year, to source fabrics, draft patterns, and oversee quality control. The worst problem was ensuring textiles weren’t printed on rainy days when the dye wouldn’t set properly and then bleed easily.

In 1977, Ramona married Canadian businessman Thomas William Karson and moved to Toronto. Her first Canadian fashion show was held at Simpsons, Toronto in April 1979, where her clothes were sold through ‘The Room’ – their chic fashion department.  Over the years her clients would include Canadian journalist Betty Kennedy, and American actresses Ali McGraw and Shirley MacLaine.

Her husband passed away in June, 1989 and Ramona closed down her business by 1994.  Ramona Karson (nee Rull) died June 6, 2010. 

Carla Zampatti (1942 – 2021)

Carla Zampatti’s name probably doesn’t ring a bell unless you are from Australia where she is so well-known that she is being honoured with a state funeral in New South Wales. 

Born in Italy in 1942, Carla Zampatti’s family immigrated to Australia in 1950. In 1965 Carla produced her first small fashion collection and in 1970, she founded her ready-to-wear boutique-style business Carla Zampatti Pty Ltd.

She became one of the first Australian designers to include swimwear in her collections, and over the years became an Australian fashion institution, dressing Australian celebrities including Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett. She passed away this week after a fall at the age of 78.

Elsa Peretti (1940 – 2021)

Born in Florence on May 1, 1940, Peretti began a career as a model after moving to Barcelona in 1964. In 1968 she went on to New York where she ended up in the social circles of Warhol and Halston. 

In 1971 she began making jewellery for Giorgio di Sant’Angelo and Halston, who introduced her to Tiffany & Co. in 1974. Her most iconic pieces designed for Tiffany & Co. include the heart necklace pendant, and the bone cuff. As a child, Peretti would take bones as souvenirs from a 17th century ossuary, that her mother would make her return. “Things that are forbidden remain with you forever” she once said, explaining the bone cuff bracelet designed to emulate the wrist.

Silver was her favourite medium and she believed in making affordable jewellery that could be worn out on the street “Women can’t go around wearing $1 million.“ Peretti’s design aesthetic was pure modern minimalism ‘take away, take away’ was how she described her process to Vogue in 1986.

Peretti spent most of the last 35 years in Spain designing jewellery, establishing a vineyard, and running a charitable foundation focused on the environment, wildlife conservation, and fighting poverty. Elsa passed away March 19 at her home in Spain.

Pierre Cardin 1922 – 2020

Pierre Cardin was born July 7, 1922, in a small town near Venice, Italy. When he was a child his family moved to Saint Étienne in central France, where Cardin went to school and was then apprenticed to a local tailor at age 14.

After the war he moved to Paris where he began working as an assistant at the House of Paquin. One of his first jobs was creating some of the costumes for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, Beauty and the Beast

Cardin then worked briefly with Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior before opening his own atelier in 1953. The following year he launched his ‘bubble’ dress, which brought him to the attention of the fashion media.

In 1959 Cardin made his first pret-a-porter collection for Paris’s Printemps department store – an initiative that got him temporarily kicked out of the Chambre Syndicale. Although he was allowed back in, Cardin eventually split from the Chambre Syndicale to create and show collections on his own terms. 

He, along with André Courrèges, Paco Rabanne, Yves St. Laurent, and Emanuel Ungaro, reshaped French couture in the 1960s for the younger woman. Textiles with modern art prints and man-made materials were embraced. Tailored mini dresses, pant suits, and car coats didn’t over-emphasize the female form but instead played up a liberated, Space-Age streamlined chic. 

By 1970, Cardin was licensing his name and focussing on ready to wear. “The numbers don’t lie,” Cardin said in a 1970 French television interview. “I earn more from the sale of a necktie than from the sale of a million-franc dress. It’s counterintuitive, but the accounts prove it. In the end, it’s all about the numbers.”

Throughout the 70s, as his name began to appear on everything from bed sheets to chocolates, Cardin invested his wealth into a massive portfolio of Paris real estate. Cardin was everywhere – in 1986 Cardin worked a deal in the Soviet Union to sell his clothes made in Russia under his label. By 2009, Cardin estimated his worth at 1.4 billion dollars. 

The Fine Arts Academy, of which he had been a member since 1992, announced his death on December 29, but the exact time, place, or cause of his death were not revealed.

Kenzo Takada 1939 – 2020

Kenzo Takada

Kenzo Takada was born in Himeji, Japan, on Feb. 27, 1939.  After leaving university where he was studying literature he enrolled at the Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. 

In 1960, Kenzo won a prize from Soen magazine and began his fashion career designing girl’s clothing for the Sanai department store. In 1964 he received ten months of rent in compensation for being evicted from his apartment block which was to be torn down for the Tokyo Olympics. With that money he travelled to Paris where he restarted his fashion career freelancing – selling sketches to designers.

In 1970 he opened a boutique called Jungle Jap (he wanted to overshadow the pejorative meaning with a positive spin). The walls of his boutique were painted in wild floral patterns and his first collection used kimono fabrics and folk wear influences from around the world in an East meets West aesthetic. In 1976 he renamed his business Kenzo. In 1977 Jerry Hall and Grace Jones were among the models who appeared in a fashion show of his clothes at Studio 54 in New York.

A men’s wear line was introduced in 1983, a jeans line followed in 1986 and in 1988, a perfume was created. Things were going well until 1993 when his life partner died and his business partner had a stroke. Kenzo sold his company to LVMH that year for approximately 80 million U.S. but stayed on as designer. In October 1999 he decided to step away from the fashion industry due to the frenetic pace and unrealistic demands ““Everything has changed, from the way we make clothes to the way information spreads and how many seasons there are now,” he complained to The South China Morning Post. The label is currently under the creative direction of Felipe Oliveira Baptista.

Kenzo focused on his art for the next 20 years, until January 2020 when he launched a lifestyle brand called K3. He died from complications from COVID-19 on October 4 at the age of 81. 

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Kandahar Designs

Last week we received a donation of some clothing primarily from the 1970s to the 1990s. Amongst the items was a late 1970s striped grey cotton ‘A’ line sundress with the label ‘Kandahar Designs – Boston’. A few google searches resulted in an interesting back story

In 1970 or 1971, Eli Zelkha was heading down to Florida for spring break with Archie — (his last name is never revealed), a pre-med college mate from Colgate University in upstate New York. On the trip down they talked about what they would be doing that summer. Archie had $5,000 and suggested the two go to Afghanistan to buy ‘cool stuff’ to resell. During their summer they purchased a very expensive Bengal tiger skin rug, scores of antique 19th century Afghani rifles, and 800 men’s wedding shirts from dealers in Kabul.

When their purchases arrived in the United States, the tiger skin rug was confiscated, there was no interest in the rifles from collectors, and the shirts were used, stained, and mis-sized. All they could do was try to salvage what they could from the shirts, so they dyed them to cover the stains and then consigned them through boutiques. One shop offered to share his booth at an upcoming New York sale in lieu of payment for some shirts, and the shirts were a hit. Mademoiselle magazine snapped some up for a fashion shoot, and other fashion mags and leading stores followed.

The next problem was filling orders. By 1972, Eli and Archie had moved from being importers to manufacturers when they hired tailors in Afghanistan to make the items to order. As the interest in ethnic clothing grew, especially after Yves St. Laurent’s success with ethnic-inspired collections, the two expanded the business, hiring fashion designers to remake Afghani clothes and textiles into Western styles, like sundresses.

The venture was a huge success until 1979 when the Iranian revolution lead to Russia invading Afghanistan. Even though ethnic fashions were already cooling in popularity, Eli bought out Hindu Kush, a competitor clothing business that sourced similar clothes. He then attempted to shift production to different styles of clothing, but the business failed.

There is a great article that tells the story in more detail, as well as the video below, with Eli Zelhka telling his story first hand. BTW, the owner of Hindu Kush was Tom Freston who went on to found MTV in 1981, and Eli Zelhka went on to head the team that invented Ambient Intelligence in 1998.

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Max Raab

Max Louis Raab was born in Philadelphia on June 9, 1927 to Herman and Fanny Raab, who owned a family-operated apparel company that specialized in making shirtwaists – affordable blouses worn with skirts by women of all classes for a variety of tasks and trades.

When Max returned from wartime service, he began working with his brother for the family business. Max soon realized that the postwar world was upwardly mobile and tastes and pocketbooks were allowing for a higher end product, especially for the younger teenage consumer in the growing post war suburbs. 

Max defined the new suburban preppy look by taking the tailored man’s shirt and turning it into a full-skirted shirtwaist style dress for women. Their new upscale country look was perfect for the suburbs that was neither the city nor the country, and was launched in 1958 under The Villager label. Around the same time he also launched Rooster ties, which made square ended straight grain ties in great textiles.

The Villager dresses were typically made in cotton or cotton blend fabrics, the style was the ultimate WASP dress, appropriate for the office, school, home or date night. The style was also quickly picked up by Hollywood, who used shirtwaists as go-to looks for TV moms.

Produced in men’s shirting, and then prints from companies like Liberty of London, textile artist Marielle Bancou Segal was brought in in the mid 60s to create prints in the textile studios of Kenmill, in New England. The brand was typically sold through a shop-within-a-department store locations that catered to the preppy chic customer. A younger line was created in the 60s called Lady Bug fashions that featured turtleneck sweaters, kilts, tights, slacks and simple dresses. The look grew into a collegiate look popularized by actresses like Ali McGraw, who wore Villager clothes for the filming of Love Story in 1970.

1970 was also the year, Raab recognized that fashion was heading a different direction and he sold all his companies to Jonathan Logan and turned his interest towards film production. Max returned to the fashion industry in 1974, setting up the company J.G. Hook, which specialised in women’s sportswear, often with a nautical flair. In 1989 he opened Tango, a necktie manufacturing company.  Max Raab was dubbed ‘The Dean of the Prep Look’ by Women’s Wear Daily. In 1998, Max sold off his share in the company and retired. He died in 2008. 

Kansai Yamamoto 1944 – 2020

Kansai Yamamoto with stage costume he designed for David Bowie

Born in Yokohama, Japan, Yamamoto learned civil engineering and English before self-training as a fashion designer. He debuted his work internationally in London in 1971 where young fashions were still originating. Two years later he began collaborating with David Bowie who often wore his genderless creations on stage. Yamamoto debuted in Paris in 1975 and rode the wave of Japanese design that dominated fashion until the end of the 1980s. After the early 1990s, his fashion shows became more extraordinary and his clothes less commercial. He died last week from leukemia at the age of 76.

For more about his life see Vogue and the New York Times

Cotton jersey dress by Kansai Yamamoto, late 1980s, FHM collection