04.06.11

Balmain's Big Rip-Off

Christophe Decarnin brought Balmain's overpriced aesthetic to the forefront of the fashion industry. Robin Givhan says his departure from the famed French label could save his career and style mavens money.

The announcement that designer Christophe Decarnin officially departed Balmain Wednesday morning was sad, but it allowed the fashion world to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The last few months of Decarnin's tenure at the famed French label seemed profoundly tumultuous and stressful. The job had taken a particularly brutal toll on his health, so much so that Decarnin didn't attend his own Fall 2011 ready-to-wear runway show in March.

Gallery: Balmainia

But Decarnin's departure could be to his benefit. Certainly, the fashion industry—as a purveyor of beauty ideals, fine craftsmanship, and creativity—is better off without the aesthetic that he and Balmain popularized.

In Decarnin's six years at the fashion house—four as creative director—he generated ear-splitting buzz at the brand with his collections of broad shoulder jackets, shredded toothpick jeans, ripped T-shirts, and lavish embroidery. But more startling than the look of the clothes—which seemed to have been inspired by aging '80s rockers—were the prices. 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.

To a great degree, consumers are to blame for this gimmickry. The fashion industry does it because it works. Shoppers are drawn to items precisely because they're out of reach. The more expensive something is, the more likely people are to assume that it must be better made, prettier, shinier, and more valuable. Designers realize if they price their merchandise too low —even if they still maintain a fair profit margin—they could harm their brand image. Pricing is as much a part of fashion marketing as the decision about which model to use for an advertising campaign.

Balmain threw the fashion industry's already tenuous balance of cost and value so far off kilter that the clothes became pointless. The company might as well have been selling dirty handkerchiefs embroidered with the Balmain name for $5,000.

But Balmain took that marketing psychology to an uncomfortable extreme. The company certainly benefited from its sales pitch, with its president, Alain Hivelin, asserting that revenue was up by 50 percent seemingly every year since Decarnin's arrival. Balmain threw the fashion industry's already tenuous balance of cost and value so far off kilter that the clothes became pointless. The company might as well have been selling dirty handkerchiefs embroidered with the Balmain name for $5,000. Quality and craftsmanship were removed from the equation—it was all about a price point and a label.

Fashion has always been an industry of smoke and mirrors, with designers benefitting from consumers' insecurities, fantasies, cultural expectations, and taboos. But it was especially heartbreaking to hear of some voluptuous customer uncomfortably squeezing herself into a pair of exceedingly narrow Balmain jeans—not because they looked good or were comfortable, but simply because they were Balmain.

It's old-fashioned to suggest that a birth date should dictate one's aesthetic point-of-view, but at many a Balmain show in Paris, one couldn't help but stare in dismay when the designer's aging acolytes would arrive dressed in his spangled fare. These were not the kind of garments created to accentuate a woman's figure and they did not serve as a vessel into which she could pour her personality. More than anything, they were glittery building blocks for constructing a character.

It was sad to see women of a certain age hiding behind some image constructed in the ateliers of Balmain, instead of allowing the strength of her own personality to shine. If there's anything instructive left in the adage of dressing one's age, it's the hope that, by the time a certain birthday arrives, a woman's sense self is so clear and true that she no longer needs her clothes to illuminate her personality. Instead, one would like to think that she's so confident, interesting, and charismatic that a big-shoulder jacket with sequined epaulettes would just be a distraction.

Fashion should be filled with make-believe and fun. But it makes no sense to play a supporting role to one's own clothes—no matter how much they cost.

Robin Givhan is a special correspondent for style and culture for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. In 1995 she became the fashion editor of The Washington Post where she covered the news, trends and business of the international fashion industry. She contributed to Runway Madness, No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers , and Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers . She is the author, along with The Washington Post photo staff, of Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady . In 2006, she won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her fashion coverage. She lives and works in Washington, DC.