Mais Oui, OSCAR!

The first American to head a Paris couture house, Oscar de la Renta scores in his debut show

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It is Sunday in Paris, just three working days before the classic couture / house of Pierre Balmain presents its spring collection to the fashion world. A lot is riding on this event: Balmain, long known for the sumptuousness and taste of its creations, has been hurt since the 1982 death of couturier Pierre Balmain by the inroads that ready-to-wear clothes have made on couture. The house needs a lot more sparkle to revive its sagging fortunes and prestige.

The sewing rooms are teeming with the work that remains to be done at the last minute, which in the couture industry means virtually everything. Seamstresses are hunched over exquisite embroidery. Bodice? Belt? So far the delicate pieces have no discernible shape. The designer, a robust, immaculately tailored figure who seems to be everywhere yet remains cool amid the hubbub, warns two tailors not to put so many stitches in a vibrant aqua trench coat. "Every stitch can pull," he sighs. "Silk is a very hard fabric to tailor."

In the main workroom staffers are looking at semi-finished garments on the house models. Everybody speaks up -- about the width of a belt, the choice of footwear ("I hate those shoes!"). Staring into the mirrors with the intensity of a dancer in a practice studio, the designer ponders. A filmy navy chiffon skirt gets an instant reaction: "Georgette." It seems that the diaphanous chiffon is too light; the slightly heavier georgette will hang better. So an order is placed with the fabric house in Italy. It will take 24 hours for delivery -- if the fabric house has an acceptable navy.

The designer is obviously the key to the entire enterprise, and in choosing one, Balmain has taken a major gamble. Not only is he brand new to the house, but he isn't even French. He's -- mon Dieu! -- an American. Oscar de la Renta, 60, the elegant, experienced hand who has practically cornered the U.S. market on splendid evening clothes, is the first American ever to take over a French couture business.

Balmain's choice apparently signals a decision to keep its middle-of-the- road image. There are young French designers who look more to the iconoclastic creations of Jean-Paul Gaultier or Gianni Versace, others who are openly nostalgic for the glories of the past. Balmain's new man is unlikely to plunge in either direction. His talent lies in translating the traditional into the distinctly contemporary. He emphasizes wearable clothes, however luxurious they may be. If Balmain wants to catch up to the 1990s without leaping into the 21st century, the house made a very shrewd choice.

Oscar, as everybody calls him, fits perfectly into the Balmain aesthetic. He is not an innovator -- his few enemies call him a copyist -- but he executes gorgeous costumes with a peerless eye for fabric, detail and nuance. He understands the exotic world of couture from his youthful years working for Balenciaga and Lanvin. His private life has provided him with a window into the life-styles of luxury. His first wife, who died several years ago, was Francoise de Langlade, editor in chief of the French Vogue. He is now married to Annette Reed, a daughter of the late metals industrialist Charles Engelhard.

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