The Rise, Fall and Return of Christophe Decarnin
The Rise, Fall and Return of Christophe Decarnin
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date August 17, 2017
The soundtrack waned David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul.” Stylist Melanie Ward—famous for her seminal work with Helmut Lang in the ‘90s—brought a softer, lighter touch to the French fashion house’s notoriously narrow high-shoulder blazers. In silk lame, cropped trousers over thigh-high leather boots projected an air of confidence, while heavily ornamented jackets, in bronze, silver, and gold, were clearly a nod to Ziggy Stardust. Though critics were impressed with Balmain’s latest effort, one question persisted—where was the designer?
At the Fall/Winter 2011 ready-to-wear show, creative director Christophe Decarnin failed to make an appearance, marking the end of an era that defined mid-2000s fashion. While initially the house informed press that Decarnin was busy recuperating following an unconfirmed illness, rumors ran rampant of forced hospitalization due to depression or exhaustion. Still, despite murmurs of fatigue and hardship, Balmain PR insisted the designer would return in due time. A month later it was announced he was no longer with the brand. Shortly thereafter, his design assistant, current Creative Director Olivier Rousteing, had taken creative control. All was clearly not well.
Why would a brand whose fortunes had so drastically changed part ways with the designer who spearheaded their revival? Could Decarnin not handle the pressure of leading a suddenly booming business? These questions, for the most part, still remain unanswered. What is known, though, is how a reclusive country boy brought a staid couture house back to life from the brink of bankruptcy, and once again made glitz, sex appeal, and ornamentation part of the fashion vocabulary—a feat on par with peak Gucci-era Tom Ford, and reminiscent of the late, great Gianni Versace.
Born 1964 in the small seaside town of Le Touquet, Decarnin grew up in a resort town now known as a playground for the Parisian rich. Located on France’s Northern coast, the small town alternates from a population of less than five thousand in the winter to over 250,000 in the summer, with the ultra-wealthy shacking up in massive beachside villas. While a townie at heart, the vacationers clearly left an impression on a young Decarnin, who grew to be enamored with ‘60s style glamour and eveningwear.
As a teen, Decarnin left Le Touquet for Paris, and in 1981 enrolled at the prestigious ESMOD (or, École supérieure des arts et techniques de la mode) to study fashion. Following graduation, history is a bit foggy, but at some point the recluse secured a position at Paco Rabanne. By 1993, he was promoted to creative director, a position he held for seven years. It was there he first caught the attention of prominent critic Cathy Horyn—or his clothes did at least. “You wouldn’t have noticed Decarnin in those days; he was a colorless and shy boy” Horyn said in a profile for T. Rabanne’s futurist aesthetic, wildly successful in the ‘60s, was undergoing resurgence, and as creative director, Decarnin was at its center. Still, with Rabanne’s famously inflated sense of self—Horyn said his “ego…tended to outmaneuver everyone, like forcing you to take the last available chair in a crowded room”—coupled with Decarnin’s lack of public persona, the aloof designer remained a mystery to fashion press, with the label’s namesake receiving the bulk of attention.
By 2000, Decarnin parted ways with the fashion house. Surprisingly, he had no issues with his background role—he almost seemed to relish it. Rather, he was frustrated with the limited nature of the business. “It was not happening at Paco Rabanne. I wanted to show that you could make a dress and, even if it’s very fashionable, you could sell more than 10 pieces.”
After his time at Rabanne, Decarnin took a job consulting for a fashion conglomerate that owned the French chain brand Apostrophe. Mostly removed from high fashion, the designer considered drifting out of the industry entirely. In 2005, though, at the ripe age of 42, an interesting offer came his way. He was asked to take a position at a house many considered irrelevant: Balmain.
The early 2000s were a tumultuous time for the once prestigious French haute-couture house. Following Oscar de la Renta’s departure, and a string of failed designers—most infamously Laurent Mercier, whose tenure was considered a catastrophe—Balmain was on the edge of bankruptcy. Enter the late Alain Hivelin, and business partner Alexandre Allard. The duo envisioned a new direction for the brand, eschewing haute couture with a focus on ready-to-wear. They felt, despite Decarnin being a middle-aged nobody, he was their guy.
At first hesitant to take a design role at a sixty-year-old house with a tarnished reputation, Decarnin eventually agreed. While the press where curious which direction he would take, there was a consensus that it would be rooted in the house DNA. For his first collection, however, Decarnin made a striking decision: disregard the legacy of Pierre Balmain altogether.
His most notable predecessor, de la Renta, who lead the house between 1993-2002, modeled his designs in the vein of Monsieur Balmain, updating classic silhouettes with modern proportions and design cues. For years, that was the way it was done. Legacy brands would pick a rising star, hoping he or she would inject a much-needed shot of youth while still adhering to the style of the founder, and not alienating pre-existing clientele. Decarnin, though, was either uninterested in that approach, or simply didn’t care.
For his first collection, Fall/Winter 2006, Decarnin presented a drastically different take on Balmain. Although he visited some of the brands tropes—post-show he told press he studied the ‘40s and ‘50s periods in particular—including elegant gowns, and heavy use of pleating, his penchant for leisurewear, club attire, and trademark hack-and-slash aesthetic were already beginning to form. Instead of regal high necklines, Decarnin’s dresses featured heavy gold chains and fully open backs. Cocktail dresses were cut so short they barely qualified as dresses, and a heavy use of gold, silver, and black clearly showed his rock-n-roll inclinations. The defining look was an embroidered white tee paired with metallic silver sequined flare trousers—a decidedly casual affair. The house, once known as a stuffy couturier, had undergone a complete overhaul.
Following seasons moved farther and farther away from anything resembling traditional French couture. Themes ranged from Michael Jackson to The Rolling Stones, and slick leather perfectos and restructured military jackets became calling cards. The jackets in particular, with pointed “ball shoulders,” often encrusted with Swarovski crystals and immaculate beadwork, were embraced by the French elite. Easily the most shocking aspect of the new Balmain was the price point, which, in the words of Cathy Horyn, would make a couture client “audibly gasp.” The second skin biker jeans, a must-have Decarnin staple, began at $1400, with jewel-crusted and leather iterations fetching as much as six grand. Those ultra-short bandage dresses? North of $5000. The can’t-be-missed beaded military jackets easily fetched $15,000. Even the distressed cotton T-shirts, which supposedly moved like hot cakes, cost over $1000. Still, and shockingly, sales were through the roof.
The French elite—pretty much the only people who could afford the clothes—couldn’t get enough. Within a few seasons, Balmain became the de-facto house of rich it girls. Carine Roitfeld, then editor of Vogue Paris, and her daughter were both early adopters. Kate Moss and Rihanna joined the expanding fanbase, along with the slew of rail thin European socialites—all tangentially connected to royalty—with the means to buy in. Decarnin had discovered a recipe for success—he brought sex back into fashion.
His method was quite clear from the get go. Decarnin injected a shot of glam rock into traditional couture garments. While his jeans and leathers were bonafide hits, it was the shifts and gowns that truly wowed. Eveningwear was always his specialty, and the ability to infuse an ‘80s, almost trashy, sense of glitz and glam into formal wear made Balmain the most coveted label on the planet. Under Decarnin, revenues reportedly doubled every year, and in 2010, the house did over 28 million Euros in revenue. Compare that to today, when over half of Balmain’s sales are through licensing, and it’s easy to see how impressive that feat really is. By 2008, after only three seasons, everyone wanted in—the era of “Balmainia” had begun.
After a year of rumors, Decarnin announced his move into menswear in late 2008, showing the first collection the following January as a part of Paris Men’s Week. Initially, critics were skeptical. Even with Balmain’s white-hot status and bolstering sales, few womenswear designers successfully transition to men’s. There were questions as to how the ultra-sexy skimpy frocks and narrow structured jackets would translate into a man’s closet. Following the show though, Decarnin once again proved naysayers wrong. Much like their female counterparts, men came in droves. Kanye West, post Dior denim flow, and David Beckham moved to show their support for this new era of Balmain. Balmainia proved to have no gender.
The biker jean, by then a Balmain staple, was adopted with ease into the male wardrobe. The intricate details and whiskering, still fresh and not yet forced, were widely embraced, and came at a much more palatable price point—the top end was around $1500, a bargain compared to the women’s. Distressed T-shirts were tamer, and military shirts, dotted with badges and emblems, proved surprisingly prescient. With his men’s collection—Decarnin referred to them as “wardrobes”—the designer managed to reign in his most eccentric urges and create clothes just wild enough to entice, yet clean enough to be widely relatable.
That, perhaps, is Decarnin’s crowning achievement. His ability to create clothing that—while clearly fashion forward—is easily understood. Whether you were partying in Saint Tropez or going clubbing in Le Marais, as long as you had the cash, Balmain was a safe bet. It was bold and brash, to be sure, but the bottom line was that it was just clothing, not avant-garde expressionism. The beadwork and crystals may have been ornate, but there was nothing existential or experimental about what he did—he simply made fabulous clothes for people that loved to be seen. A curious thing for a noted shut-in. Decarnin never partied—his clothes partied for him.
Apart from distressed biker jeans, which are somehow still “cool,” Decarnin’s menswear was well ahead of its time. A quick peek at his Fall/Winter 2010 collection will reveal as much. Amiri’s “shotgun” distressed T-shirts? Decarnin did that first. Those side-zips on John Elliot hoodies? He did that too, in 2009. That epic oversized Racoon fur-trim oversized parka Kanye couldn’t stop wearing? Menswear designers today still rip that off. While a much less sizable chunk of the business, in the end, his menswear proved to have something his womenswear lacked: staying power.
His success, in large part, was due to the influence of Vogue Paris, in which Decarnin’s designs were plastered across their pages. Then-editor Roitfeld, along with her assistant—and not-so-coincidentally Decarnin’s lead stylist Emmanuelle Alt—helped push the designer to the forefront early on in his Balmain tenure, and their unprecedented involvement insured his designs made their way to the French elite. In 2010 however, Roitfeld left the magazine, and Alt was named as her replacement. Forced to scale back her freelance work, Alt could no longer regularly collaborate with Decarnin—the first sign troubled times were ahead.
That same year, Decarnin began to receive mixed reviews. His style felt staid. While women’s tastes changed, those same ultra-short dresses and ball shoulder jackets continued to appear season after season. Adding in the fact that every fast fashion retailer was stocking their shelves with some level of “Decarnin rip off,” clearly a tragic side-effect of his resounding success, did not help. What was once Haute-Trash was quickly becoming trashy. Without Alt guiding him, and waning public interest, Balmain executives began to grow weary. If Balmain lost its cool factor, how could they continue to demand those exorbitant prices? In retrospect, the price point—which Decarnin argued “reflected the Couture nature of the garment”—was one of the earliest instances of prestige pricing. Things were not mind-bogglingly expensive exclusively due to material or man-hours. Rather it was more of a “fuck you” to those who couldn’t afford it. It is the same tactic that Gucci currently employs—and to some extent Vetements. It’s as if to say, “my clothing is expensive because I want it to be. If you can’t afford it, it’s not for you.” While elitist, it’s a tactic that works, and one that the .1% adore. The minute the items themselves are no longer coveted, however, the entire illusion unravels. Balmain higher-ups were concerned that was an imminent threat.
At the Fall 2011 ready-to-wear show, some of those issues were addressed. Melanie Ward was brought on to replace Alt, and many of the ornate Decarnin trademarks were toned down—both in ornamentation and in price point. Pants were looser, dresses less stiff, and shoulders less pointed. Still, his failure to show made it clear that the disagreements, success, and expectations were weighing on him. That show would be his last. In April 2011, Decarnin left Balmain for good.
Following his tenure, Decarnin seemingly drifted out of fashion altogether. Unlike other star designers fired at the height of their success, there were no rumors of another appointment, or an eponymous label. He seemingly disappeared overnight. Four years later, however, his name began to resurface. In the age of “fashion collectives”—think Vetements, GmBH and MISBHV—the former Balmain team had taken up residence at a new headquarters, and were going by a new name: Faith Connexion. Rumors spread, but no one was certain. Word had it that Decarnin was back in business.
Before Faith Connexion exploded in 2015—Pre-Fall 2015 was their breakout season—they were a tribe of artisans quietly customizing army and leather jackets with graffiti, paint, toggles and the like. While the brand, founded by Ilan Delouis, had been around since the early 2000s, it began as a drastically different business. Then, in 2012, minority stakeholder the Allard Group (owned by one Alexandre Allard, the very same involved in Balmain’s resurgence) stepped up their investment and became a majority shareholder. Under the new leadership, the entire business was gutted. All standalone stores were shuttered, and the design team was axed. In their place came the former, pre-Olivier Rousteing Balmain team. Questions obviously abounded. What of Decarnin?
In a 2015 Business of Fashion profile, Allard deftly avoided the question: “Whoever asks about Christophe doesn’t accept the shift in the paradigm.” The paradigm shift the Faith Connexion CEO referred to was a previously unheard of business model. No star designer, no seasons, and no standalone stores. Rather than focus on individual collections—“I didn’t understand why there was Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter in a world that is globalized,” he said—Faith produces clothing continuously. The bulk of the design team remains anonymous, while in-house graffiti and visual artists like Pisco Logik and Vincent Dacquin front the label.
Although the aesthetic was far from Decarnin’s Balmain, there were enough similarities to beg the question if he was involved. In a 2015 Vogue interview, with Faith Connexion jeans guru Thomas Monet (former Balmain design assistant under Decarnin) Kristin Anderson noted that, not only was Monet a key to Balmain’s success, but he was also a close friend of Decarnin. It was a subtle hint that the designer may very well may be in the so called “Circle of Faith.”. Taken altogether, it was obvious that the presence of Mr. Allard himself was the clearest indication of Decarnin’s resurgence—as it was Allard who championed the designer into the creative director chair less than a decade prior.
As success came, journalists continued to dig for information—focused on Decarnin, Decarnin and more Decarnin. After all, few designers had managed to stage such a massive turnaround and achieve huge success in such a short while. In her review of the 2015 Pre-Fall collection Anderson claimed “the entire pre-Rousteing Balmain team (all of them)” were working under the Faith Connexion banner—a sly nod to those in the know that Decarnin was very much involved. After endless showroom appointments, and PR continually ducking questions, information began to trickle out. Rather than deny Decarnin’s presence, the brand issued a manifesto around the time of the Fall/Winter 2015 ready-to-wear show, stating that “Fashion needs to be free, Freed from Fall/Winter, Spring/Summer seasons, freed from multimillion-dollar shows, freed from flagship stores, and freed from star designers.” It was perhaps the most natural and best effort to avoid the question on everyone’s mind.
Within a few months, it was an open secret Decarnin was involved, albeit as a “background presence.” By 2016, the house would openly refer to him by name, but never as head designer or creative director. Allard—debatably to the benefit of Decarnin—pushed to maintain the image of a tribe of artisans meticulously tearing, slashing, and repairing vintage garments in a Parisian atelier. The method obviously worked, and as of last year, journalists have effectively stopped asking about the former superstar, and respect his role as a “behind-the-scenes” player. It’s a tone that brings Decarnin’s work history full circle, all the way back to his days quietly whizzing away at Paco Rabanne. Still, with the label’s wicked fast turnaround, it’s quite clear he holds much more than an ancillary role.
All these years later, Decarnin’s A-list clientele continue to come flocking back. Kanye, Rihanna, and Beyonce have all worn pieces from Faith Connexion—ditto for Madonna and the Kardashians. Such gargantuan cosigns are not unprecedented considering the label’s star studded “collective.” Looking at the price point, it seems both Allard and Decarnin learned some lessons along the way. While Faith Connexion is by no means cheap—prices range from a couple hundred dollars to a few thousand for some items—they are not even in the realm of his pricey Balmain pieces. The most expensive Faith items, customized graffiti-adorned army surplus jackets, fetch $7000; that amount of cash wouldn’t even buy you a Balmain blazer in Decarnin’s heyday. Aesthetically, the two labels seem diametrically opposed—haute glam rock trash vs. hippy thrift renaissance, but in reality they share the unmistakable mark of Decarnin. Where Balmain was couture brought to life through glitzy clubby revival, Faith Connexion is a couture approach to lived-in vintage. Items are brought back to life from the brink of destruction. The garments occupy the space somewhere between Beacon’s Closet and a Parisian atelier, and with over four hundred points of sale, people obviously have faith in Faith Connexion.
For Fall/Winter 2017—Faith Connexion’s first official fashion show (the brand technically showed Spring 2017 off-schedule at MADE Australia)—the brand made a triumphant performance. Those Michael Jackson tunes Decarnin loves made their return. The sequins, ornamentation, distressed T-shirts, and tops masquerading as dresses were back as well. The giant Racoon fur-trim parka? It was even bigger. It’s poised to be Faith Connexion’s biggest season at yet. At the center is Decarnin, hiding in plain sight, orchestrating another whirlwind success. Hopefully this time it won’t end up engulfing him in its wake. Guess you’ve gotta have faith.