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.

Oscar de la Renta 1932 – 2014

Green silk evening gown with sequinned bodice, by Oscar de la Renta for Jane Derby, c. 1967

Green silk evening gown with sequinned bodice, by Oscar de la Renta for Jane Derby, c. 1967

Oscar Aristides Ortiz de la Renta Fiallo was born to a well-to-do family on July 22, 1932 in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. He moved to Madrid at age 17 to study painting at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. By the mid-1950s Oscar was working as an illustrator for Balenciaga before moving over to Lanvin in Paris to work under designer Antonio del Castillo.

Blue and white polka-dot gypsy inspired outfit, by Oscar de la Renta, c. 1972

Blue and white polka-dot gypsy inspired outfit, by Oscar de la Renta, c. 1972

In 1963 Oscar moved to New York to begin his career in ready-to-wear – where he correctly felt the future of fashion was heading. He started working at Elizabeth Arden and moved over to Jane Derby Inc., shortly before Derby’s death in 1965. Oscar bought Derby’s business with the help of investors found by his well connected wife –  Francoise de Langlade, editor-in-chief of French Vogue.

In 1969, the same year he became a U.S. citizen, de la Renta relaunched his business under his own name. For the next 45 years Oscar dressed Hollywood celebrities, royalty, and every first lady from Jacqueline Kennedy to Laura Bush. Michelle Obama only recently wore de la Renta for the first time after rejecting his designs for years after de la Renta publicly criticized her clothing choices for meeting Queen Elizabeth in 2009.

Oscar de la Renta died October 20, 2014, after a long battle with cancer.

Versailles ’73 – American Runway Revolution documentary

In 1973 New York fashion promoter Eleanor Lambert had an idea for a fashion show to promote American ready-to-wear. The November show was ostensibly created as a fundraiser for the restoration of Versailles but it became an historically important fashion event akin to the debut of Dior’s ‘New Look’ collection of 1947. The extravaganza featured five Paris haute couturiers (Yves St. Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Marc Bohan for Dior, Hubert Givenchy, and Emmanuel Ungaro) and five of Seventh Avenue’s best designers (Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, and Oscar de la Renta.)

Every moment of this story, from inception to after-party, is excitingly recounted in the smoothly edited documentary ‘Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution’. A huge cast of models, photographers, socialites, and fashion historians, most of whom were there, recall the story from the stereotypical icy Parisian reception of the American contingent through the dramatic melt-downs and infighting that took place right up to curtain time, to the thundering applause from the audience who tossed their programs into the air while screaming Bravo.

The French went first, with a 2 1/2 hour presentation that was heavy and dull with overly-theatrical sets, long musical numbers, and formal fashion parades. This was followed by the American 35 minute presentation that used blank sets, emphasizing the lively presentation of willowy models as they danced across the stage in colourful, easy-fitting clothes. The American presentation won the unanimous acclaim of the guests and media.

American fashion had been gaining international importance since the 1940s, but this event made even Paris recognize the leading role American ready-to-wear and sportswear design now had in the world of fashion. The Versailles show was also instrumental in opening doors to black models that only ten years earlier were absent from mainstream American fashion presentations. The minimalist style of the show and dramatic moves of the models even changed how fashion would be shown for the next 25 years.

The film is at its best when it lets the still stunningly beautiful models recall, almost with disbelief that they were there, the events of the evening. A few grainy clips and photos survive, which help to bring the recollected stories to life, but it is difficult to believe that no complete film of the show was originally made or survives.

The documentary slips a little by using too much footage of experts who weren’t there but pontificate like they were. Also, the film drags towards the end as the message gets repetitive about how important the show was to black history. With a ten or fifteen minute edit, this documentary would be perfect.