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Art of Style

The designer interview: Olivier Rousteing of Balmain

Creative director OLIVIER ROUSTEING has brought diversity, decadence and more than a dash of celebrity to Balmain. As he celebrates a decade at its helm, he talks to MEGAN LOGUE about elitism, escapism and how he’s building the future he wants for the brand

Styling Marina Gallo
Fashion

Despite designing his SS21 collection in the midst of France’s first national lockdown and beginning the process over Zoom, Olivier Rousteing refused to let the then-burgeoning vogue for sweatpants seep into his collection. Throughout his tenure at Parisian house Balmain, he has become known for dramatic silhouettes, liberal embellishment and a high-octane glamour that deftly blends a future-facing outlook with an old-world decadence. “It was out of respect for Balmain, for the house,” he explains. “I know that they might sell during lockdown, but I can’t showcase the talent of the maison by sketching pajamas.” Rousteing subscribes to the belief that fashion doesn’t need to be of this world to be relevant, acting as a sort of sartorial salve or escapism. “Fashion should take you somewhere, whether it’s a time, a place or a new reality. It’s my job to make people dream, not confront them with the fact that the world is in the midst of a crisis. You can open any newspaper or turn on the TV if you want to be reminded of that.”

Recently, Rousteing has been reflecting on the role of creative director, not least because, this year, he celebrates a decade at the helm of Balmain. His appointment is the stuff of fashion folklore. A relative unknown when, in 2011, he was appointed as creative director, Rousteing had risen up the ranks at Roberto Cavalli before moving to Balmain, where he was second in command to his predecessor, Christophe Decarnin. But while a changing of the guard always attracts a certain amount of media attention, for Rousteing the interest was twofold. Not only did his promotion make him the youngest creative director of a Parisian powerhouse since 1957 – when Yves Saint Laurent was appointed to lead Christian Dior at the age of just 21 – he also became the first Black designer in many years to ascend to the uppermost echelons of the fashion industry.

Fashion should take you somewhere, whether it’s a time, a place or a new reality. It’s my job to make people dream, not confront them with the fact that the world is in the midst of a crisis

This mythology was only enhanced by Rousteing’s personal story: born in Bordeaux, as a baby he was adopted by a wealthy family (Rousteing only discovered the basic facts of his birth in 2018, while starring in Anissa Bonnefont’s documentary, Wonder Boy), who nurtured his talent and relentless perfectionism. He is frank about the fact that this innate need to prove himself loomed large during his first years at Balmain. “I wanted to be the ‘perfect’ designer. I was trying to please the fashion world,” but he adds that at some point he realized how futile that dream was, and became, in his own words, “a real creative director”. He elaborates, “As I matured and got older, I realized I had the chance to express more than just fashion with my designs; that, in a way, my work could be political. I have this platform and feel a really strong responsibility to use my shows and collections to deliver a message of change to the next generation. I feel like I’ve used this first decade at Balmain to build my own world – the future I want.”

It’s the role of every designer in this world to actually embrace the topics dominating discourse in the world we’re all living in… You cannot create clothes for women if you don’t have a sense of their lives today and their changing role in society

And what Rousteing wants is nothing short of a revolution – the democratization of fashion is something he speaks frequently and fervently of. “My understanding of people who want to keep pop culture and fashion separate is that they are close-minded and stuck in a world that doesn’t exist anymore. They have their own idea of what is ‘chic’ and ‘cool’, but it’s really just elitist. It’s an outdated concept.” Far from propagating a rarefied vision of fashion that negates the reality of women’s lives, Rousteing chooses to comment on and counter these struggles with his utopian vision. “It’s the role of every designer in this world to actually embrace the topics dominating discourse in the world we’re all living in – from sustainability and environmental protection to the #MeToo movement. You cannot create clothes for women if you don’t have a sense of their lives today and their changing role in society.”

Rousteing’s SS21 collection itself was a tour de force befitting a new era both for Rousteing and the Balmain woman; a post-lockdown world with myriad reasons to get dressed up again. “It’s the wardrobe you need for when you can see your friends again, go back to the office, travel – everything!” From hyper-structured blazers finished with power shoulders, to iridescent two-piece looks and silhouette-sculpting separates, it served as a veritable ‘greatest hits’ of Rousteing’s design signatures and spoke of even brighter days ahead. “A designer doesn’t live in the present – we’re always working at least six months ahead of time, and I am an optimist; this is the life I want to be living.” There were also nods to the house’s iconic founder, Pierre Balmain, in terms of both ethos and aesthetics. Balmain founded his eponymous house in 1945, while Europe was still reeling from the destruction of World War II, yet he championed a romantic and opulent silhouette completely at odds with the utilitarianism of the day. As Rousteing sees it, “The house has always been geared towards the future and pushing for a better world.” For SS21, Rousteing revisited and remastered monogram prints that Balmain first debuted in the 1970s. This knowledge of and sensitivity towards the Balmain archives speaks to his reverence for the house.

It’s not enough for brands to put a black square in their Instagram feeds. It’s about who you cast for your shows and also who you hire
Rousteing wears shirt from his SS21 menswear line

Rousteing has authentically championed diversity long before the industry at large began to face up to the systemic issues plaguing fashion. “It’s not enough for brands to put a black square in their Instagram feeds. It’s about who you cast for your shows and also who you hire,” he says. Despite the fact that a decade has passed since his own historical appointment, Rousteing remains an anomaly as one of just two Black designers at the helm of a historic brand. Off-White founder Virgil Abloh was appointed creative director of Louis Vuitton menswear in 2018, while Rihanna’s much-hyped clothing brand under LVMH, Fenty, was shuttered in February 2021 after launching less than two years previously. Rousteing is keenly aware that he occupies a unique position in the industry and speaks with candor about how he has seen the conversation around race and fashion change over his tenure. “Today it’s obviously a hot topic of conversation, but ten years ago it just wasn’t. A lot of people argued that they didn’t ‘see’ color, but I want people to see it. I am a Black designer, and as a group we’re extremely underrepresented, so let’s talk about that.”

As a figure who has transcended fashion to become a household name, who better to push forward the conversation? Rousteing’s public presence is staggering: he currently boasts 6.4 million Instagram followers and 658,600 on TikTok, where he posts everything from behind-the-scenes Balmain content to vacation snapshots and dance-alongs. Then there’s his squad – known as the Balmain army, Rousteing’s nearest and dearest are a who’s who of supermodels, musicians and actors; but despite their commercial power, Rousteing is adamant that the relationships are both organic and reciprocal. “It’s not calculated; I don’t dress people I don’t really know,” he says. In an industry renowned for its froideur, Rousteing really does stand apart. Warm, softly spoken and more timid than his curated feeds might lead you to imagine, he possesses an openness that makes you feel that, no matter how lucrative these relationships might be, they’re genuine. “Why is Beyoncé part of the Balmain army? Because I am obsessed with her music and her vision. Why did I cast Rihanna in my SS14 campaign? Because she is my muse and the woman who inspires me. Why did I cast Cara Delevingne in my SS19 campaign? Because I think beyond being an incredible model and actress, she’s also a committed activist. I really love my Balmain army, and they show me as much support as I show them.”

My brief for the SS21 show was that future generations looking back in 30, 50 or 100 years would see how the fashion world was forced apart but still found a way to stay relevant and come together

Over the years, Rousteing has acquired a reputation for disrupting the status quo. He dressed and cast supposed ‘Insta’ models when other houses were still wrapping their heads around the concept. His ingenious idea to have Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid ‘switch hair’ and storm the FW16 runway with blond and brunette locks, respectively, saw the Balmain show go viral. Of course, this year, with Covid-19 rendering traditional fashion shows an impossibility, the goal posts changed again. “I think [the pandemic] pushed a lot of us to be more creative and inclusive,” says Rousteing. The designer’s SS21 show was a celebration of all things digital that saw him flex his prowess for a dazzling guest list including the Balmain army, celebrity guests, influencers and the press, all of whom beamed in from around the world in order to take their seats – or, in this case, screens – on the ‘front row’. It was a totally novel and utterly lockdown-proof way of bringing this esoteric yet global community together. Rousteing also streamed the show on a coterie of platforms, including Instagram (of course), YouTube, TikTok, Facebook and LinkedIn. His goal was to create a spectacle that would also serve as a kind of time capsule. “My brief for the SS21 show was that future generations looking back in 30, 50 or 100 years would see how the fashion world was forced apart but still found a way to stay relevant and come together.”

I’ve grown up under the spotlight of the industry, which was sometimes tough. I was a Balmain baby at the time, and now Balmain is my baby

Rousteing is now a long-standing member of an industry in which the plum roles are often likened to a particularly high-stakes game of musical chairs. He is synonymous with the brand that was, by his own admission, having “a little sleep” before he came along to shake it up and, in the process, turned it into a global juggernaut. However, the irony is not lost on him when discussing the idea of legacy that, even ten years after his appointment, he remains one of the youngest creative directors at the helm of a top-tier house. “Sometimes I feel like an old soul,” he laughs. “I think that’s the paradox of my life. I’ve grown up under the spotlight of the industry, which was sometimes tough. I was a Balmain baby at the time, and now Balmain is my baby.”

So, what’s next? Initially Rousteing demurs – “I just want to continue waking up every day with a smile on my face” – however, with a bit of needling he relents, laughing: “World domination!” And why not? As the designer himself admits, he’s pretty well poised to do it. “I’m ambitious, and between the Balmain army, the archives and my amazing team, I have a lot on my side. I feel pretty confident about the future,” he says with a smile. And so he should.