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Haute couture gets a touch of Swiss class

Swiss-born Laurent Mercier is the new head of haute couture at Pierre Balmain Keystone Archive

A touch of Swiss class is set to hit the Parisian catwalks, with the appointment of a Swiss designer to head haute couture at fashion-house, Pierre Balmain.

This content was published on January 29, 2003 - 11:02

Former transvestite Laurent Mercier joins an elite circle in Paris, where no more than a dozen fashion establishments continue to stitch designer creations by hand.

The 38-year-old replaces the much older and flamboyant Oscar de la Renta, who left after a decade in the hot seat.

Mercier's colourful resumé includes dressing the likes of singers Lenny Kravitz and Nina Hagen, as well as honing his signature style during stints with designers Jean-Paul Gaultier and Escada.

The house of Balmain was synonymous in the 20th century with dressing royalty and stars, such as Marlene Dietrich.

Prêt-à-porter

The former cross-dresser was hired last year by Balmain to rejuvenate its ready-to-wear collections, and has just been promoted to head haute couture.

So far his two collections seem to have paid lip service to the glamour served up by Balmain in the 1950s, with industry pundits calling them "romantically nostalgic".

However, Mercier accepts it might take some time for his style to influence that of the house.

"We will rebuild our customer base around my own style, so it might not happen in the space of one season," he said.

"We need a bit of time for it to mature and for people to understand my style."

The seamstresses working in the Balmain ateliers are said to be happy with the prospect of having a new boss who will based on site throughout the year.

De la Renta, conversely, would only fly in from New York from time to time to supervise the workshops.

Mercier also confesses to being more at ease with being closer to the action.

"With couture, the workshops are right above me, so you can follow the development of the clothes from beginning to end. You can step in at any moment and if something doesn't work, you change it."

Call me Lola

Mercier, a former tranvestite, used to tread the drag-queen scene with his alter ego, Lola.

While "dressing up was always a fashion experiment", he insists his gender-bending days are behind him.

"I don't feel frustrated because I really went the whole hog with the drag queen thing. My approach now is not that different, except that instead of projecting my fantasies on to myself, I project them onto real girls."

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