We were not invited to attend the Balmain show - evidently we were not deemed hip enough to gain entry to the ritzy Ritz's inner sanctum. After all, 'le 'ip' is what this brand is all about. In fact, the French term for it is 'branché,' loosely translated as street-smart, although the only streets Balmain clothes are likely to see are the distinctly Right Bank (and Right Wing) enclaves of Avenue Montaigne, Marceau and Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
Balmain has never exactly been at fashion's cutting-edge - its founder, Pierre Balmain, was eclipsed by the stunning succès fou of his contemporary Christian Dior, and quickly became known for a love of elaborately decorated eveningwear and decorous, well-behaved haute couture suiting. The latter holds no truck with his successor, Christophe Decarnin, but the former he can appreciate, albeit in ways poor Pierre could seldom imagine. Witness his latest sensory onslaught, a rock-chick rock-chic rock-slide of chain-strapped kidskin, studded and sequinned crotch-length cocktail frocks and more Stephanie-Seymour-in-November-Rain wedding dresses than you could shake a drumstick at.
All fairly standard cunning stunts, guaranteed to grab column inches several yards longer than any of Balmain's dresses, and indeed everyone from the New York Times to our own GMTV have something to say about the label's hernia-inducingly expensive wares. The really interesting thing is, the wares themselves (your not-so-standard fare of four-figure ripped jeans and evening frocks hovering around 15k) are not only selling. They are selling out. This isn't just about a few shonky showroom samples with make-believe pricetags - Decarnin's Balmain is a runaway retail success. Full stop.
Buying such blatant - dare we say brainless - appropriations of 'le rock' style raises questions (as well as hackles). Perhaps, in tapping into such a tacky, démodé sense of cool, Balmain customers are in fact re-affirming their own cultural cachet: buying something you know is uncool, but desperately trying to be cool, has some kind of sardonic auto-irony, doesn't it? At the same time I can't help but wonder if Decarnin gets the joke, or even tries to look beyond the glittering façade - ditto his ever-increasing fanbase.