PARIS — “I’ve built my show like it’s the end of the world. You will see from the looks that we are all survivors — I’m definitely a survivor, for so many reasons,” said Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing, who on Saturday is to present a show “all about surviving the world — and the fashion world.”
The designer will be delivering multi messages, including on a series of T-shirts bearing “sentences that mean a lot to me,” he said, picking out one that particularly strikes a chord: “I’m only human.”
“I’ve been in fashion seven years,” Rousteing explained, “and I’ve [had to face so much] criticism. I just want to say to people, ‘Look, you’re going to judge and critique the show no matter if it’s good or not. Have an opinion, but never forget we’re only human, we’re not superheroes and we always try to do our best.’”
Rousteing’s best, in this collection, means a men’s line more in sync with the women’s in terms of direction, “power and strength” — and the feeling that he’s found himself. As the gender-fluid trend sweeps through men’s, the Balmain man, Rousteing said, “is definitely listening to his feminine side, his rock ’n’ roll side and the glamour that he loves, but still keeping really strong and powerful.”
There’s also a business story behind this “new era” for his repositioned men’s line: It comes with “very aggressive plans” from Balmain’s fledgling chief executive officer, Massimo Piombini, to “step forward and move [the brand] into a new arena.”
Men’s represents a healthy chunk of the total business, generating around 40 percent of sales, but has been struggling a little, Piombini said, having been based on a couple of iconic styles, such as biker jeans, which are losing traction in the market. Thus, a shift to more “dressy” or style-oriented collections that maintain the brand’s “edgy” side while opening it up to a wider audience.
The introduction of a men’s pre-collection for fall 2018, in response to demand from retailers for earlier deliveries, kick-started business with a range of new, more relaxed fits and a bolstered denim, jersey and knitwear offer. “We are growing solid double digits, this is the right direction for us,” enthused Piombini, “and with the show, we expect to grow a lot.”
“We have very big competitors and we are a small brand. We want to keep the same competitors and become even bigger, and men’s will play an important role,” added Piombini during an interview at Balmain’s new headquarters at 25 Rue Pasquier in central Paris. Home to the brand’s studio, showroom, management and commercial teams, it’s a real estate asset of the Qatari royal family whose investment fund, Mayhoola Group, owns Balmain.
The new retail strategy may involve men’s-only stores on a case-by-case basis, starting possibly with Las Vegas in 2019. The brand currently has around five men’s-only concessions in stores such as Harrods and Selfridges. Directly operated stores are also set to grow from 18 to 30, including a Miami flagship set to open next year.
With the U.S. neck and neck with Europe in terms of leading markets, Balmain is eyeing expansion in Asia, historically a hot market for men’s. Accessories, launched two seasons ago, will play an important role. The house has hired a shoe designer from Gucci and is in hiring a new sneaker designer. South Korea offers big opportunities, Piombini said, adding that his is now closing or transforming Pierre Balmain stores there into the main line where suitable.
Wholesale accounts for 80 percent of Balmain’s revenues, a proportion Piombini hopes to bring down to 55 to 60 percent within the next five years.
Entertainment will play a major role in broadening the brand’s reach, Piombini said, with a “huge” project in the pipeline for 2019. Anyone attending the April opening of the brand’s new Milan flagship (timed to coincide with the Salone del Mobile furniture fair) will get a sneak preview of the entertainment strategy.
“The borders between music, video, fashion and technology are very blurred,” noted Piombini. “Before, there were very specific tools to talk to people. Now you can reach a very big audience with something that goes across all these things…”
“Monetizing” the Balmain audience — with a view to closing the gap between its vast social media following and the size of the business — is among the opportunities, he added. (Despite its reach, the house in 2017 generated 150 million euros in sales. By comparison, Stefano Sassi, chief executive officer of Valentino, which is also part of Mayhoola Group’s portfolio, last March set a revenue target of 1.2 billion euros for the year.) According to Instagram data, Balmain’s fall 2017 women’s show was the top show on the platform during Paris Fashion Week, reaching 1.9 million people and driving 2.9 million interactions. Rousteing himself has 4.7 million followers.
At 32, Millennial Rousteing is a unique asset for the brand, with “authenticity” a pillar of the communications strategy. “Olivier has a very natural, spontaneous language that is relevant to these people. If you think of creative directors around the world, he is the youngest by far in terms of overall position and talent, and the only one who has a legitimacy to talk to these people,” said Piombini.
“Our job is to find a communications strategy that is authentic. The traditional communication model doesn’t work any more for us. For the situation we are facing, it’s very important to think about how to approach this customer — or potential customer — in a way that is relevant for them. But we also realize this audience is young, and can’t necessarily afford the current Balmain line. Our job, product-wise and development-wise, is to find a way to attract these young customers into the stores, with new categories.”
In a crowded market, the house’s craft-intensive “couture” pieces — think beaded Ziggy Stardust-inspired T-shirts or hand-embroidered baseball jackets retailing at around 35,000 euros — address a “very specific crowd, people belonging to the entertainment business, visible people” and give the house “a different edge” but, “if you want to move from the current size of the business to three times the size of the business, you cannot just count on that,” said Piombini.
The idea, moving forward, is that classic dressers, such as Piombini himself, can also find themselves in the collection, by “relaxing the shapes a bit, the fit. Even the dressy part is growing, with new kinds of fit for jackets and pants. There’s also a sports line, more relaxed.”
“I’m not necessarily the target customer; one, because I’m older, and two because maybe I’m a bit more classic, but I found pieces in the collection that I can totally buy without changing my personal image. Olivier was the first to realize that — it’s not something that we were pushing him to do.”
“You cannot put the Balmain man in one box,” said Rousteing during an earlier interview at the presentation of the house’s pre-collection. He described the offer as going from “casual daywear to the stage,” noting VIP clients range from Cristiano Ronaldo and Justin Bieber to John Legend and Kanye West. “There’s the hip-hop star, the soccer player, but then you’ll get someone like Zayn Malik.”
Such diversity is indicative of the men’s market having undergone a “revolution” since Rousteing started at Balmain. “I’ve being designing men’s wear for seven years and I’ve done shows for three years, and I can see how much further I can push boundaries than I could at the beginning. It’s a real sociological shift.
“Before, men were scared about being judged. Now, men embrace glamor without feeling ridiculous, the boundaries have changed. I see a lot of women wanting the men’s wear pieces but, I can tell you, the [fully embroidered] T-shirts came from the men asking why they can’t have the same as the women.
“Right now, there’s men, women and gender fluidity and this is really interesting, because men are now expressing their femininity. Why should women be able to, and not men? Nobody is shocked by a woman wearing a men’s wear jacket, so what is the difference if a man wears a women’s jacket?” Rousteing added.
Known for his megawatt castings and guests (“powerful boys, powerful girls”), Rousteing — who promises “an amazing front row” for the men’s show — said the focus on the catwalk will be on new faces.
“I want to open my Balmain Army to new people, and I have the strength and the power to show new faces, so the casting is about new boys. My Balmain Army gets younger,” he said. Balmain men’s customer is in the 20-to-30 age range, “so it’s important for me to give a new youth to the brand, and to the men’s wear collections.”
A co-ed show is not on the cards, although a new women’s capsule will feature in the men’s show. “I have a lot of men in the room when I do a women’s show and a lot of women at the men’s — they can pick what they want,” said Rousteing. “Women fight so much for the role of women in the world that I want to give a moment just to women, and I want to give a moment just to men.”