ARCHIVE: The Other Man Behind Balmain, Christophe Decarnin

With the debut of the Balmain x H&M collection in a loud runway show in New York in October, social media and fashion sites were buzzing. One obvious name that has been coming up with much frequency: Oivier Rousteing, the house's creative director (and Karlie Kloss, one of the number of big-name models that walked in the show). But what about Rousteing’s predecessor? Christophe Decarnin, the Paris-based design house’s former creative director. Now that is an important name. While Decarnin left his post in April 2011, he is still particularly noteworthy as he had a strong hand in making Balmain into the house it is today.

In fact, quite a bit of what you see on the Balmain runways today (and in the H&M collaboration, as well) has direct ties to what Decarnin championed at the once dusty old design house (so, dusty that between 2001 and 2006, Vogue Runway nee Style.com simply does not have any collection reviews or photos; Laurent Mercier and Christophe Lebourg individually served as creative director during this time). “Balmain was not happening, ever since the fiasco of its last designer, Laurent Mercier,” Cathy Horyn, then still working for the New York Times, wrote in 2008.

Decarnin, a Frenchman, who worked under Paco Rabanne in the late 1990’s before heading to Balmain in 2005 at age 42, is responsible for what is currently left of the rocker-chic aesthetic at Balmain. In his hey-day at the house, one that was formerly considered a stuffy couturier, his wares were as polarizing as they were short and tight.

Of his commencement, Horyn wrote: “So, after thinking things over, [Decarnin] gets himself up to 44, rue François Premier — chez Balmain, right in the heart of the haut monde and the rich kids with their long hair and white Louboutin shoes — and what does he do? He designs these dresses that are almost too short to be called dresses. They’re like tops. By the next show he’s added louche Ali Baba pants and ripped T-shirts splattered with gold. It’s like there’s nothing to them. Of course, the French and the English girls immediately get it. Sex! Heaven! It will take the Americans longer to grasp what’s happened. And it’s so simple. . . . Balmain has become the label of the supercool girls.” Before that it was Balenciaga. Remember?

Consider Decarnin's sophomore outing for the brand, Spring/Summer 2007, which was complete with slouchy paillette tops paired with harem-type cargo pants, metallic mini-dresses, distressed white t-shirts, and even more mini-dresses. Writing for Vogue, Nicole Phelps grappled with the designs and their origins: “It's hard to see what the show's metallic leather dhotis and tattered and deconstructed sweaters and tees—some with panels of sequins, others held together with safety pins— have to do with the house's legacy.” The following season, Phelps noted “thigh-grazing dresses that have become a house motif since its relaunch a year ago,” which were embellished with silver armor embroidery, metal coils and sequins for that “tough-chic” element, the house’s other developing signature. Decarnin had swiftly begun making his name.

Seasons to come saw dresses “barely grazing the models' bums,” and hard rock and punk garments for “girls with a killer body and an active nightlife.” A shift to MASH-militaria for Spring/Summer. And to a notably elegant winter collection (think: F/W 2010), complete with highly elaborate, high-collared seventeenth-century cutaway coats, tailored pantsuits, and the long-in-back, short-in-front lamé gowns. Note: Decarnin’s stylist of choice was Emmanuelle Alt, who he worked with until S/S 2011, at which point she poached for the role of editor in chief at Paris Vogue.

In September 2008, Sarah Mower noted the now famous Decarnin for Balmain silhouette, which had been showing up on the runway for a couple seasons or so. She wrote: “A super-skinny sleeve, finessed upwards into a brilliant new shoulder with a bump-peaked swagger on jackets and dresses.” Ms. Mower also did a fairly spectacular job of summarizing the essence of the Balmain woman (read: uber-rich young woman)’s wardrobe: “Drummer-boy Michael Jackson jackets with the frogging picked out in crystal, souped-up stonewashed jeans, bandage-wrap dresses, sequin-smothered sheaths, teeny tutus, teetering sky-high diamanté-and-stud sandals.” That was Christophe Decarnin in a nutshell; and that nutshell was complete with Parisian couture skills.

In a matter of two seasons, Balmain was on top. He was commanding “extravagant prices,” per the New York Times. The buzz was palpable and the Paris-based design house was being copied by the high street like never before (“Christophe Decarnin is the man on whose glittery, highly padded shoulders rests the success of the whole of the mass market as it currently stands,” Vogue noted in 2009). Decarnin made his name based on his “frank embrace of rock-chick bling, rounded ‘tennis ball’-shouldered jackets, and elaborate jeans,” per Vogue. The publication also noted that Balmain “had the shortest, tightest body dresses witnessed anywhere: smothered in Swarovski crystal, flouncing up at the shoulder, tightly bound in satin drape or quilted, chain-wrapped black leather.”

The house’s revamp under Decarnin drew nary a neutral bystander. It was a love or hate type of thing. Accordingly, some took a very strong liking to the house’s revamp, praising Decarnin for reinventing the house and introducing Balmain to a younger audience (with deep pockets), including many French celebrities and influential editors (think: Julia Restoin Roitfeld, Eugenia Niarchos, Olympia Scarry, Gaia Repossi, Dasha Zhukova and Charlotte Casiraghi, a daughter of Princess Caroline). He is often hailed for bringing about Balmania. Case in point: in 2009, The Telegraph wrote: “Under current designer Christophe Decarnin, the fashion world has succumbed to ‘Balmania.’ One of the most expensive clothing lines ever has become the label of choice for celebrities and is adored by the industry.” This was a feat that Oscar de la Renta could not achieve for the house during his ten-year tenure from 1993 to 2002.

Simultaneously, others, such as Robin Givhan, the former fashion editor for The Washington Post, took issue with the Balmain under Decarnin, much of which had to do with the house’s pricing structure (think: distressed tank tops for $1000+ (which tended to sell out), $600) for certain styles of denim, and dresses for $20,000). Writing for The Daily Beast in 2011, Givhan seemed to celebrate Decarnin’s departure. She wrote:

Certainly, the fashion industry – as a purveyor of beauty ideals, fine craftsmanship, and creativity – is better off without the aesthetic that [Decarnin] and Balmain popularized…The cost of his fully bedazzled mini-dresses could reach well into tens of thousands of dollars, easily making a couture client hyperventilate. His tailored jackets, though beautifully cut, were also a king’s ransom at $10,000. In fairness, some of the prices could be explained by the skill put into the cutting and the elaborate beadwork – one Prince-inspired collection, for example, featured frock coats lacquered in gold sequins. But Decarnin’s tattered jeans and t-shirts were equally as expensive – think $1,000 for an artfully torn tank top. And no, he did not come to clients’ homes himself with a pair of shears to do the snipping to their personal specifications. There is no justification for that sort of pricing other than it exploited one of the worst marketing tactics in the fashion industry. Balmain’s jeans and t-shirts reeked of the most grotesque prestige pricing.

It is worth noting that the well-respected critic seems even less taken by the house’s new creative direction, titling her review of the house’s Spring/Summer 2016 collection as, “At Balmain those aren’t clothes on the runway, they’re a social media moment.” Note: under the current model of Balmain, fewer people are buying main collection Balmain garments than when Decarnin was at the helm and thus, the house relies almost entirely on revenue from its various licenses. With this in mind, such social media spectacle is necessary. 

Others were less deterred by the brand’s “gimmicks,” as Givhan put it. Erin Mullaney, buying director of Brown's in London, said: "I'd worked in the industry for seven years when I saw [Decarnin’s] first season in 2005, and I'd never heard of prices at that level. I choked. Now we joke about it, because it has become relative. Balmain moved the bar up, but Givenchy and Prada have moved in that direction, too. Customers have re-adjusted their pricing." And it seems consumers were not terribly bothered; Balmain's owner, French businessman Alain Hivelin, said sales had doubled since Decarnin was appointed in 2005, with revenues for 2008 to hit $28 million.

Unfortunately, Decarnin’s dénouement was largely overshadowed by the media storm that pried (for readership numbers sake) into his personal life. Upon failing to take a bow at the close of the house’s Fall/Winter 2011 show, Balmain released a statement that he was suffering from exhaustion. Many publications suggested this meant that Decarnin was in a mental hospital or some variation of that story. The fashion press will be the fashion press.

What is certainly more important to take away from Decarnin’s tenure is what he showed on the runway, what he used to revamp this otherwise hopeless house. His method was not necessarily neat and tidy. He opted not for the old-school method of reviving a fashion house, one in which a director respectfully takes elements of the house’s legacy and combines them with more contemporary elements for a result that serves to attract new clients and simultaneously preserve the existing clientele. No, this was not Decarnin’s method, as indicated by the far-too-short eveningwear.

He also largely differs from others – including his successor, who seems to be tapping into the youth culture by way of Instagram, famous friends and high street collaborations – in that his approach was arguably completely organic. Yes, Decarnin’s designs made it to the red carpet, just not because he was busy Keeping Up With reality stars. Yes, he staged opulent runway shows, just didn’t document the process on his personal Instagram (in part because Instagram didn’t exist, but even if it did, he almost certainly would have opted out of partaking; he is, after all, “colorless and shy,” per Cathy Horyn). Instead, Decarnin relied on the garments themselves; an approach that seems a bit dated at worst, rare at best – given the current landscape. While those garments were intricate (and expensive) as hell, they were easy enough to understand and covet. They were short and tight and shiny and sexy. They were cool. At that time, few designers were doing this. Horyn reflects, saying: “Many designers, to judge from the complexity of their clothes and obscure references, don’t sufficiently appreciate [the need for immediate impact]. Indeed, more and more, it seems, they design clothes that require a special knowledge. But Decarnin makes fashion that anyone can understand — and, strange as it might sound, that’s rare today.”

In short: Decarnin, who did not lavish in the spotlight, let his clothes do all of the talking. He had help, certainly. French Vogue had a lot to do with Decarnin’s success, which is something he has attested to. But as Alice Fisher put Decarnin best in an article for the Guardian: "He's a man of few words, but the product speaks for itself.”

As for why it took him so long to come out on top, Emanuelle Alt remarked in 2008: “I think success in life is half your personality and half your talent. He has the talent, but the personality… You know, if you always stay in the shadows and don’t have the connections, it’s more difficult. Some people have a lot less talent, but they push themselves and go out and meet people.” Remember, Decarnin didn’t have Instagram. He also never went to clubs. He once went to St.-Tropez but it was years ago. 

Where is Decarnin now, you may ask. Since his abrupt departure from Balmain in 2011, he's remained out of the headlines, until this past March when the fashion press, most notably Vogue, noted that rumors suggested that "Decarnin and his entire Balmain-era team are ensconced at the Paris label Faith Connexion, the president of which, Alexandre Allard, was involved in Balmain's mid-aughts renaissance." Allard and his team would not confirm the reports.

* This article was initially published in October 2015.