“I was a Balmain baby — and now Balmain is my baby,” says Olivier Rousteing, who will mark a decade at the Paris-based fashion house on Wednesday with a blowout event during Paris Fashion Week featuring musical performers, a retrospective of his Balmain designs and his spring 2022 collections for women and men.
The designer recently celebrated his 35th birthday — his desk was still groaning with giant bouquets from the likes of Beyoncé, designer Kim Jones and the team at Karl Lagerfeld — and it’s clear he’s come a long way from the 25-year-old wunderkind who took up the design mantle in 2011, after two years working in the studio.
The Bordeaux-born designer is a graduate of the Paris fashion and art school ESMOD, and he worked at Roberto Cavalli in Milan for almost six years before joining Balmain.
After a decade at the helm of the French brand, his confidence has grown, he feels truly like an adult and the fashion house has multiplied in size sevenfold as he added pre-collections, men’s wear and accessories — along with heat and cultural currency.
Despite his youth, or perhaps because of it, he thrust himself and the house to social media stardom; put diversity and inclusivity at the top of his agenda, and took a community-building approach to everything he did, welcoming all to join his “Balmain army” as early as 2014, when he coaxed Rihanna to pose for one of his blockbuster campaigns. (He followed up with Kim and Kanye the following year.)
In an interview at his office, with its panoramic views of Paris, Rousteing was upfront that it hasn’t always been easy taking lumps for some of his creative choices, and his out-there personality.
And he made it plain that racism is rife in France, despite widespread denial about it, fueling his convictions to raise awareness, foster dialogue and set an example by inviting everyone to his fashion party. For example, more than 4,000 people are to attend Balmain’s branded, two-day music festival, with 3,400 of those members of the public pledging a minimum donation of 15 euros to (RED) and the Global Fund, which fight against HIV and AIDS.
Here’s what he had to say:
WWD: You’ve been working at Balmain since 2009. What attracted you to the house in the first place?
Olivier Rousteing: It was a moment where there was not so much sexiness and confidence in the fashion system. But Balmain was really glamorous, with a touch of rock ‘n’ roll: It was craftsmanship versus casual; glamour versus effortless; the Parisian aesthetic versus maximal, so this is what I liked at the time. It was a moment when I really loved the Emmanuelle Alt [former editor in chief of French Vogue] aesthetic. It was 2009. I liked the idea of going to a really French house at the time, with an aesthetic that to me felt really today.
WWD: Did you have any personal connection to Balmain prior?
O.R.: I always loved the fragrance from Balmain because my grandmother was always wearing Ivoire de Balmain. It was one of the most famous perfumes of Monsieur Pierre Balmain. I think it was from the 1970s.
WWD: Would you say the spirit and aesthetic of Balmain is close to your personal style?
O.R.: It was completely my style at the time. I remember I came to the office everyday with my double-breasted navy blue jacket and my denim pants. I always loved that kind of, like, preppy style mixed with glamorous gold. And I’m obsessed with tailoring. Balmain represented that kind of chic, French aesthetic.
Balmain is one of the oldest French houses, but Mr. Balmain was as global as he was French. He was really fluent in English. His first personal appearance was in America, in New York; he was friends with Gertrude Stein. He was really about a French aesthetic, but always pushing for a more global aspect. His ambassadors include Josephine Baker, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Dalida, the Princess of Thailand, a really eclectic range of women, and I love that. I find a lot of similarities between me and him. I think he was trying to push the boundaries all the time. I always say, “I’m the witness of my time,” but I think Mr. Balmain was also the witness of his time.
WWD: You were only 25 when you took up the creative reins. Do you still feel like the same Olivier?
O.R.: I think the Olivier from that time was probably more naive. He was an Olivier who didn’t know what would happen to him. I was just trying to follow the steps of how to be that kind of perfect designer that people wanted to see.
I believed in things that maybe fashion didn’t believe in at the time, so many people were against me, judging me and criticizing me for my choices, and that hurt. Many times people were questioning my use of social media. Like why do I need to put myself on social media? Why do I need to talk about digital? Why my casting? It was tough because I was fighting for something that shouldn’t be a fight. For me, it was just something normal.
But I became more confident. I became an adult. Let’s be honest: The fashion world can be a really amazing place and the fashion world can also be really, really tough. You need to be able to distinguish between the constructive criticism, and those people that will never like my work. You need to balance and understand the critiques. But what still excites me after a decade is wanting to make Balmain grow and grow, and I think I accomplished that.
WWD: What would you say are your proudest accomplishments during your first decade at Balmain?
O.R.: I’m proud of the loyalty I gave to this house, and the loyalty it gave me in kind. There’s not so many designers these days who stay at a house for 10 years. I have seen so many changes over the years, with designers leaving, and it makes me a little sad.
It’s so precious to stay in a house for so many years – learning a language, and transmitting that language. I would love to see more designers spending more time in houses, because it’s such a beautiful adventure to be together.
I’m also proud of the awareness of this house. Ten years ago, a kid of 12 years old would not know what Balmain is. For example, one of my biggest moments was the collaboration with H&M in 2015. Do you understand what an accomplishment it is to have 95 percent of it sell out in 10 minutes around the world? We really understood then that Balmain has awareness. I’m happy that we are much more global and less niche than we were 10 years ago.
WWD: What elements of DNA have you added to the Balmain arsenal?
O.R.: The connections to pop culture for sure. I always say I am a witness of my times, so I said let’s be connected to music, to Netflix, to social media, to the incredible muses of the world today.
I think my strength has been to connect a house which dates back to 1945 to the world of today, and still reminding people that it’s a house that has a strong heritage, strong values. And that the house didn’t only start with me.
WWD: What prompted you to start digging into the heritage of Balmain, and how has this impacted your creative approach?
O.R.: If you look at my collections, there are so many similarities between what Mr. Balmain did and what I did, but I have never been really loud about it. Except when I need to, like the Labyrinth monogram. It was really important to justify why I’m bringing it because there’s so much monogram around the world. It was important for me to explain where it came from.
I always think about the cuts, the craftsmanship and the maximalism of Balmain. I take inspiration from a lot of the embroideries of Mr. Balmain, the fabrics he loved. He loved tweed, silk, Lurex and pearls. And he was obsessed with tailoring, with great jackets, as I am. I love the Balmain story, because he was really, really good.
WWD: You’ve built up men’s wear, which was a new area for you. Are you your own muse for that, or do you take your cues from the women’s wear?
O.R.: I think some designers probably sketch for their boyfriend. Others sketch for their fantasy, and some designers sketch for themselves. I have to say that I sketch for myself, what I would wear. My men’s wear is my wardrobe, from morning to evening, from Paris to L.A., from Paris to Hong Kong. Men’s wear is now about 40 percent of the business.
WWD: You coined the term “Balmain army” years before people talked about community-building in fashion. What was your rationale for that?
O.R.: It’s about togetherness — the inclusivity of just being together. Also, the difference between me and many other people is that for me, there is always a fight behind. And when I started talking about the Balmain army around 2014, it’s because I realized that we need to be together to fight for a better world, for one that we want to live in.
I also realized that if I wanted to change the world of fashion, I would have to fight. Many people, including my own president, questioned why I was posting so much on social media. He asked me, “But do you really think social media is luxury?” I knew that I had to fight to be recognized as someone that has a vision, and not just a kid playing with his iPhone.
WWD: You’re one of fashion’s most accomplished and popular figures on social media. On Instagram, you say simply: “This is my reality.” How has your content and messaging shifted over the years?
O.R.: I just wanted to show the truth of my life. And even with filters on my Instagram, it’s still the truth.
WWD: You’ve been a quiet pioneer as a Black designer taking the helm of a big European luxury house. How do you see your responsibility in the quest for greater diversity and inclusion in the industry?
O.R.: I think I’ve always been really vocal about my skin color. I’ve always been vocal about diversity, but I don’t think fashion wanted to see it. Today fashion realizes that it’s important to talk about it. But do they really mean it? Or is it because they have to?
Through the years, there was a lot of racism in fashion, for sure. And I went through a lot of racism in the fashion system. For a long time, I was pointing a finger at a problem that no one wanted to see. I have to thank America for changing that. The difference between America and France is that America says there is racism, while in France they say there is not, yet there is more.
France is so stuck into traditions and values from old times. The mood boards are always the same. To be French means a certain kind of music, a certain kind of ideal woman — la Parisienne or Saint-Tropez from the 1970s. It’s always that super tough, short-minded aesthetic that makes you feel French. And this is so difficult, because you can be French in so many different ways.
WWD: Your tenure has been split between two different owners. How would you describe your collaboration with Mayhoola?
O.R.: They helped me so much to accomplish my vision, with so much freedom and respect. And I will always be grateful for that because the strength of a designer is when you get along with your shareholders, because you can work together to make the dream happen. And I have to say that I have so much respect and gratitude. I’ve been really happy and I am happy to work together because they leave me a lot of freedom, and they believe in me.
WWD: How long do you see yourself staying at Balmain? What is left to accomplish?
O.R.: I don’t feel my next 10 years at Balmain will be another chapter, but will be a new book. So it’s kind of like closing a book and opening a new one. I just wish for myself to wake up in the morning with the same smile and satisfaction that I have today.