PARIS — When the Pierre Balmain collection is shown here Monday, it will be the first by Alistair Blair, the 34-year-old native of Scotland appointed ready-to-wear designer for the prominent French house last March. He replaces Eric Mortensen, 63, who will continue creating the Balmain haute couture collections.
Blair is the latest in a line of prominent young designers hired to update and enliven some of the oldest fashion houses in Paris. Within the past year, Christian Dior signed Italian Gianfranco Ferre, and Jeanne Lanvin enlisted Paris-based Claude Montana.
An amiable and soft-spoken Highlander, Blair has worked in Paris before. After graduating with first-class honors from London's prestigious Saint Martin's School of Art, Great Britain's best fashion school, he went to work as an assistant to Marc Bohan, then the couture designer at Christian Dior in Paris. Later, Blair worked with Hubert deGivenchy for two years.
In 1980, he joined Chloe as assistant to Karl Lagerfeld. In 1983, he went to New York to work on the collection Lagerfeld was producing there.
Four years ago, Blair went to London and launched the signature label for which he became best known. But when his backer, Aguecheek, owned by Peter Bertelssen, ran into financial trouble and paired down its designer affiliations, Blair's label was dropped. He next signed up with Jaeger, the British producer of quality classics, and with the Scottish cashmere company Ballantyne.
He has been eager to get back to Paris, he says. "The British are puritanical about spending money on clothing, whereas the French are brought up surrounded by fashion. Even the cab drivers know who Yves Saint Laurent is."
The first suggestion that Blair would return here came last December when he was contacted by Alain Chevalier, the president of Pierre Balmain.
Blair is widely considered to be one of the best young British designers. His tasteful use of color and his chic but comfortable tailoring have made his label a success with American stores, and have attracted clients as diverse as the Princess of Wales and Whitney Houston.
He believes he has arrived at Balmain at a propitious moment.
"The new lifestyle today is traveling," he says. "There are more and more women who might visit nine different cities in a month.
"These women are the vanguard, and even though I don't design with any single woman in mind, their attitudes and this attitude of high mobility has a great affect on me. I find it extremely stimulating."
In his own travels, Blair recently spent six days in Los Angeles.
"When I'm there, I go religiously to the Gap," he says. "It was a joke with my friends that five days of the six were devoted to the Gap and one of them to Malibu." What he likes best about the California-based chain, which recently opened a store in London, is that "they do great quality modern clothing at a very good price."
Blair also gives Los Angeles kudos for its creatively eclectic, "brilliant" food. Beyond that, "people there so obviously enjoy their surrounding--they have a wonderful lifestyle."