From an orphanage in France to the epicenter of the international fashion scene, Olivier Rousteing’s career has rocketed to fame since he took on Balmain’s creative director role eight years ago. In a Q&A with WWD executive editor Bridget Foley, he spoke of plans to add couture as of January — bringing back the upper echelon category for the house for the first time in more than 16 years. With a Rue Saint-Honoré flagship set to bow in mid-January, and accessories getting more attention, Rousteing spoke of the importance of being dialed in to the business side of things.
Selling Balmain’s top brass about the upsides of social media took some persuading, but Rousteing insisted many of his Millennial followers appreciate craftsmanship. And his message of diversity and inclusivity is one that he wants to live on. Hopeful that the kids of tomorrow will recognize the Balmain name, he also wants future designers of all ethnicities and upbringings to understand that dreams really do come true when you believe in yourself and stay true to yourself. “Sometimes they put you on top and sometimes they really put you down. And you have to deal with it,” Rousteing said.
WWD: Congratulations for the Fashion Group International award that you received last week. You did something very different. You didn’t have a presenter. You came to the stage with members of your Balmain Army. Would you explain why you did that and what is the Balmain Army?
Olivier Rousteing: For me, it was important to show the models on the catwalk and the personalities that they are. We build a world of inclusivity and diversity with Balmain. I would never be here today if I didn’t have my Balmain Army, my top models, so it was important for me to put them on stage.
WWD: So there is a loyalty that these models have to you. How did that happen? Because models obviously have a lot of places to go and there are many runway shows.
O.R.: When I started Balmain, I was always surprised that we didn’t emphasize the woman. There was that feeling of not representing women from different ethnicities, different ages, different shapes. So I started to create the Balmain Army more like soldiers, not models who are like hangers. They actually have something very strong to say. I created that with my platform and my social media to show they were my friends. They were my friends because they were pushing boundaries, pushing diversity so it was important to me to have an army.
WWD: Tell me about diversity. It’s been important to you since Day One. How do you realize it?
O.R.: It was really interesting. When I started at Balmain eight years ago, no one was taking about diversity.
WWD: And most runways were not very diverse.
O.R.: No, not at all. When I started, it was always shocking that I could not get girls of different diversities. Because the agencies didn’t have much diversity either. Different casting directors didn’t help either. So I decided to create my own story getting my own models of different shapes, ages and colors. For me, that was really important. It was not easy. Sometimes fashion is really avant-garde and people don’t understand that. Now everybody is talking about it. But it was really hard for me to introduce that.
WWD: Diversity is such a cultural touchstone now. Certainly, no one could argue against the importance of fashion reflecting reality. But in terms of inclusivity, it doesn’t just mean ethnic and racial diversity. Fashion, especially at the luxury level, is by definition exclusionary. Is it ever OK to say, “We’re not in the business of doing something for everyone?”
O.R.: I don’t think it’s OK. Luxury is obviously a world that is expensive and not everybody can afford it. What I have done with Balmain to be more inclusive is collaborations. Balmain is an expensive luxury brand, but I was doing collaborations so that people who dream of Balmain could get a piece of Balmain. From the different types of muses I have in my campaign like Rihanna and Kim [Kardashian], this was my way to invite young people to discover the brand and to be more inclusive. When everyone is talking about Millennials and having this conversation about “What is the future?” and “What do people want?,” I don’t think it’s about one kind of clothes. It’s about being attentive and showing that the brand is actually real. This shows that you are being real to yourself. You are not lying or trying to be cool. That’s what I’ve done from the beginning at Balmain.
WWD: Tell us about some of the collaborations that you’ve done and the types of ones that you would like to do in the future.
O.R.: As you know, Balmain is very opulent and flamboyant. Sometimes people wonder who you are talking to. But for example, when I did my collaboration with H&M, it automatically sold out in New York. That makes you realize that it’s not about clothes. It’s about talking to different kinds of continents and it’s an inclusive brand. I think this was my favorite collaboration because I could see that kids were loving my brand, loving the unity that I was creating. After doing my collaboration with L’Orèal, now I think I’m good and I’ll just go back to Balmain like, “I did a lot.”
WWD: You say that kids are connected to your brand and clearly it’s not a kids’ look. It’s this powerful look. What was it about you and what you were doing? You said to me that before you arrived, Millennials didn’t know what Balmain was. What did you do that struck such a chord?
O.R.: First I had to fight with my president. This was my biggest battle. Let’s not forget that Balmain is a French, old brand from 1945. In America, there is always this idea of youth and inclusivity. In France, it is very different because the older you are, the better it is — like wine. So…at 24, you learn. I said to my president, “Why don’t we go on social media? Let’s take selfies with the models. Let’s create a new platform. Magazines are incredible but that’s not the goal.” So I started to create that world, putting together my ideas and my vision. At the same time, it’s not just because I was 24 and I was doing sneakers and looking young in the street. I wanted to actually show that Millennials also love craftsmanship and quality. Being from France, I look up to Chanel, YSL, Poiret and all these incredible designers from the past. What I remember from them is the craftsmanship, the luxury, the timelessness. When you’re young, you’re cool. But cool is something that is not forever. Right now I’d rather be uncool and timeless. This is my goal.
WWD: You became an instant social media star. What was it about the way you handled social media that resonated so well. Did that ever get in the way of the fashion?
O.R.: No. I think it was revolution against designers being in golden towers. That’s over. They want to see what you eat, what you think, how do you create your collection, why do you choose those models, why you choose that campaign and whether you are friendly with the people you have around. The behind-the-scenes was really important for me because I wanted to really express hope. I’m young and black, but I work a lot. I want to show you how I work and the people who I believe in. It was a way to express myself. It was a little frustrating at first because I didn’t see my vision around [in fashion]. So I decided to create my world on social media.
WWD: You say that designers can’t be in a golden tower. You’re also not in a golden tower. For all the flamboyance of your clothes, and they are very flamboyant, you also pay attention to the commercial side of the business. Talk about that.
O.R.: I think being a creative director today is being a businessman. There is nothing wrong with making sure that you love business. We are not just creating clothes for models to walk and to not see them [being worn by shoppers] around the world. The idea for me was to always understand my members. Fashion is about being inclusive and seeing people wearing your clothes. So yeah, I’m really close to my president and sometimes I’m challenging him when I’m challenging myself.
WWD: When one looks at your runway, “commercial” isn’t the first word that comes to mind. Talk about the importance of the runway and how that circles back to the commercial aspect.
O.R.: This is really interesting because the success of a fashion show doesn’t mean that you put a lot of commercial pieces on the runway. Balmain is based on a strong vision. Some dresses are $45,000, but some jackets are $1,000. You don’t have to put the $1,000 jacket on the runway to sell it. When you express the vision, people go for the vision you express. A Balmain woman is a strong woman. She’s powerful. She knows what she wants. She’s confident so after they see the runway, they get the pieces they want in stores.
WWD: Another cultural element that is very strong today is feminism. Your Balmain woman is very strong with a super heroine aspect to the runway. At times, you’ve been criticized for the unreality of it especially in today’s world. Can clothes be feminist or anti-feminist?
O.R.: No, everybody now is talking about feminism. I am the first one to believe in a strong woman but the length of the dress doesn’t make you a feminist or anti-feminist. I think it’s about what you believe and how you present the woman. Yes, I’m being criticized for that kind of unreal world. Sometimes I feel like an old soul with so many transformations after eight years — the gray oversize coat was cool and then after everybody started wearing sneakers and then trying to be like Seventies. I think what is important is being true to yourself, believing in the woman who you create and Balmain is a strong woman. She’s flamboyant for sure, but she’s an Amazon. And this has always been my goal. She’s a goddess.
WWD: You brought up sneakers. Your clothes are obviously very done up. How have you dealt with the street trend and the casualization trend overall on culture?
O.R.: I think it’s great. I think that trend has appeared three times, since I’ve been the creative director. It’s not something that is new. It’s just something that will be on repeat. Some designers pop up and are stronger than others in streetwear. But I think it’s something that we need to be really careful about. Fashion loves luxury and work and quality. For me, at least, you have to build a brand based on quality and not with what is cool and trendy. I love streetwear, but there is not one kind of streetwear. Sometimes fashion loves to put the young or the street in one box. When I go out in the streets, I don’t see only sneakers and hoodies. There is more than that. And thank God, that is why fashion is incredible. There are a lot of different visions.
WWD: Balmain’s business currently is upward of 80 percent ready-to-wear, correct? That seems to leave a whole lot of opportunity in other areas. What are you focused on? What would you like to develop?
O.R.: Of course. I would love to develop accessories, which I’m working on now. Fragrance and cosmetics, but this is something that you take your time to do. Again, it’s quality, it’s luxury. Seven years ago my goal was for people to know Balmain. When I was 13 years old, Balmain was not a brand that I really knew. So when I started at Balmain at 24, I wished that the kids of tomorrow would know Balmain. Thanks to singers who mentioned Balmain and thanks to my collaborations, people and the kids know Balmain. Now my goal is to make Balmain bigger with accessories. To do that you need to present the DNA of the house and this took seven years.
WWD: On the other hand, you’re expanding in a different way, which is news. You’re adding couture and you will be on the couture schedule in January. Why now? Balmain started as a couture house but has not had couture since Oscar de la Renta.
O.R.: Because I’m very obsessed about streetwear. I’m opening a flagship on Saint-Honoré in the middle of January. I want to go back to basics and doing couture doesn’t mean making old. There are these words that people love to play with in fashion. There are three key words — chic, cool and modern. These are the three key words. If you get them together, you hit the jackpot [he said slightly sarcastically]. I don’t know that couture is cool. Couture might be chic, but sometimes it feels old. But the reality is that I wanted to bring back that luxury factor to Balmain even more. Because my customers love the luxury factor. They love to feel special and unique. It is a house from 1945. Pierre Balmain was doing couture. I wanted to bring back the Parisian DNA.
WWD: But practically speaking the stakes are so high now in the arena with Dior, Chanel and those resources with those exquisite ateliers. How do you set up a couture atelier.
O.R.: From the business of the past eight years, I have grown up to make my dream come true. I’s not the level of Chanel or Dior, but they’re very inspiring to me. I’m trying to do that with my own goal.
WWD: Tell me a little bit about your professional history. We’ve seen different types of hires — celebrity hires like Virgil [Abloh at Louis Vuitton] and Hedi Slimane [at Celine]. You preceded Alessandro Michele [at Gucci] but, at the same time, you came from the design studio at a much younger age. What did you learn as an anonymous studio designer?
O.R.: I learned to work really hard, to not count the hours. I had people asking me, “Do you have family? Why do you work these hours until 2 or 3 a.m.” I said, “You are right. I don’t have kids so maybe I can stay until 5.” I learned to work so hard, but at the same time, I was influenced by designs from before. I learned that fashion can be incredible and can be cruel. You need to understand that there are some rules and if you don’t play by those rules, you need to be stronger. Of course, my predecessor left because It was over fashion. At my age it was a really big honor. But I was working so hard. Again, it doesn’t matter your age. It matters your strength. I learned from my predecessor that fashion can be really hard. Sometimes they put you on top and sometimes they really put you down. And you have to deal with it.
WWD: But how could you have possible prepared for becoming the instant celebrity, traditional celebrity and a social media star? How did you deal with that? Did you have any moments of psychological adjustment?
O.R.: It’s really hard because no school can teach you how to deal with celebrities. They teach you to be a designer if you have a vision or a creative director. My first show I always remember because when they told me to go on stage to thank the crowd, I saw the spotlight and thought, “Oh, my life has changed.” But for those last six months as I was working on that collection, I didn’t realize what it was to be a creative director in front of the fashion crowd and the crowd as well. It was incredible. But when I started to get love from all the people, I thought it’s taking off and it’s actually working. Working on a collection is a lot. I had to deal with the fact that yes, you get followers. I got a lot of reviews telling me that my show was for Instagram or to catch pictures. This is not true….Now I think it’s a battle for many people to go forward. You cannot move forward and not be a strong designer.
WWD: One thing I really want to get to is your personal history. You talk about how important diversity is to you, having been a young, black designer coming to fashion. You are adopted. For spring 2018, you showed in Paris at the Opera Garnier. That was a very emotional moment for you, going back to childhood experiences. Talk a little bit about your upbringing, your parents and how your childhood impacted your life.
O.R.: I come from an orphanage and I don’t know my biological parents. My parents are white, I am black and I grew up in the south of France, which was really conservative. So the eyes of the public around me was weird to me. I decided with fashion and my clothes to express that I was going to make it. Fashion shows that you can make it. When I was a kid I went there [the Opera Garnier] with my parents and I was dreaming of that. When I realized in my 30s that I could actually do that, it made me feel like the king of the world. If you had told me at 10 years old that I would be in front of you, talking about my story and making that business, I would hope that I could believe that. There were no examples like that for me when I was at that age. What I want to say to kids with my fashion is that you can believe. Now there are a lot of designers that you can refer to. This is important. When I was young, I didn’t refer to anything. There weren’t any campaigns. Fashion was really hard for me. Music was great. Music has always been open-minded. But it was really hard for me to find anyone to refer to for the future to say, “Oh. I’m going to be like that.”
WWD: It’s wonderful that you are part of that message to people much younger than you. Congratulations. Thank you very much.