INSIDE THE WORLD OF BALMAIN
If you get the chance, ask Olivier Rousteing what’s coming next, because he didn’t just anticipate the future, he helped create it. Of his decade at Balmain, he says, “Those 10 years have been more than just work. I have seen the world changing.” Whether you look at silhouette or social justice, Rousteing has played his part.
As well as unleashing his big-shouldered, short-skirted version of Balmain glamour, he was one of the first luxury designers to actively promote diversity on his catwalks and in campaigns. He was also an early adopter of social media and showed a sceptical industry how a savvy designer could nurture a powerful online community. His past is our present, but Rousteing lives in the future. “Whatever happens, I need to always be a step ahead to think what is going to be,” he says from his light-filled rooftop office in Paris. This is his happy place. With 360-degree views across the city, it’s where he comes to “travel in my mind”.
So when he looks at the luxury landscape in 2021, what does he see? “Trends are dying,” he says. The world is full of doubt, and to Rousteing’s mind, the antidote to that doubt is certainty. “People want something that they know, in two or five years, they will still feel proud of,” he says. “People will be more careful of what they buy, more careful of the feeling of something being unique and timeless. They will reposition the meaning of luxury.” Comfort dressing is not dead, but he predicts the overpriced branded sportswear that has spread like Japanese knotweed over the fashion landscape during lockdown will die back. “The world has shifted. Priorities have shifted, but let’s not believe we will just sell more hoodies. I really believe that the new direction of fashion will be that people will spend money on something that is worth it, and one of the many reasons for that worth will be that it feels unique.”
What we will really value, he says, is craft and creativity from brands that are connected to their customers. “The brands that didn’t create a strong community are the ones that are suffering the most,” he says. “The sense of inclusivity will be stronger than before.” Honesty, he says, is the best policy when talking to your customers. Have convictions and speak from the heart – “Because people are more careful of what they buy, they want to feel that everything they see is authentic. Don’t lie to them.”
Can a pandemic bring out the best in a designer? For Rousteing, crisis mode has meant keeping a clear head, staying nimble and seeing a bold creative path through to the other side. The past 12 months have hardly been quiet. Last July, he staged a major public fashion event on a pair of barges on the Seine as part of the house’s 75th-anniversary celebrations. He followed that in September with a mega-show that reimagined the runway as a mix of a live catwalk experience, huge global digital audience and a witty take on the front row. Cindy Crawford, Jennifer Lopez and Anna Wintour, along with 55 other VIPs who couldn’t travel to Paris, appeared as Zoom heads, on a bank of LG TV screens.
Alongside the catwalk high jinks, Rousteing launched the hit 1945 bag collection and revived the house’s maze monogram, which founder Pierre Balmain first used in the early 1970s. Rousteing is having endless fun splashing it over everything from nylon backpacks and parkas to crystal couture gowns. As well as a way of bringing the brand’s past into its future, this dynamic heritage graphic, which can be applied to anything, is a symbol of his inclusive vision for Balmain. And it’s one that is paying off: he tells me with pride that there has been a 130% increase in Balmain’s online sales since the pandemic began.
He rang in 2021 in typical Rousteing style, by dressing Lopez for her joyous New Year’s Eve concert. Look no further if you want proof of the redeeming power of crystals, feathers and tulle. Look a little closer and you see that, in that moment, Rousteing transcended the traditional red carpet and took it to the next level. The impact of Lopez wearing his designs for an iconic performance amplified his message far louder than a simple step-pose-repeat red carpet ever could. “It’s like generating a bigger community of people and the awareness of the house,” he says. But he’s not predicting the end of the traditional red carpet. Quite the opposite: “I can tell you that as soon as this pandemic is over, people will need to hug, people will need to dream a bit more, people will need to see a bit of that sparkle.” And as for his celebrity muses… “You really don’t want to see those people wearing the same pyjamas as you,” he quips.
But don’t think the new glitter of 2021 is the same old sparkle as before. Rousteing believes we will have a new relationship with finery post pandemic, one that’s rooted in emotion and substance. “If people buy it, they want to see the amount of hours that were spent creating it. They want to understand more of the magic behind it. Four years ago, you would wear a sparkly dress because it sparkled. Now you will spend because you know that the sparkle represents an incredible amount of work. You feel that is something you will keep for ever because you know that whatever happens in this world, you will be proud of this dress being part of your wardrobe.”
This year marks his 10th anniversary at Balmain. A decade after taking over as the youngest creative director of a major Paris house, Rousteing is allowing himself to look back, for a moment. “I always say that I was the Balmain baby. Now Balmain is my baby,” he says of his trajectory at the brand. He’s rightly proud of the way he has projected luxury forward, championing what he calls “the world of today” over nostalgia. “I was not associating the world of luxury with what is vintage, which is usually the case in fashion,” he says. Rousteing never saw high fashion as a place cut off from the wider world. Instead, he saw his diverse group of friends, his modern music and his contemporary muses as belonging to the same world. “I have always been obsessed with mixing hip-hop with fashion, but I remember, in interviews, people were asking me if hip-hop can be luxury.”
His use of Instagram (where his personal account now has 6.4m followers) also raised eyebrows. Rousteing recalls an executive inside Balmain telling him that luxury did not belong on social media. “I told them that, 20 years ago, the internet was not supposed to be luxury, but today your e-commerce is the biggest boutique you can have.”
Fashion insiders also sneered at his choice of muses. He was the first high-fashion designer to embrace the Kardashian clan, putting Kim and Kanye in his SS15 campaign. It reflected his view that luxury can be inclusive as well as his wider desire to appeal to a broad church. He counts his 2015 H&M collaboration as one of his proudest moments. It supercharged the brand. “I loved the idea of bringing so much Balmain around the world and making it affordable. I understood that the aesthetic that I built was not just stopping at Rue Saint- Honoré or Avenue Montaigne or Manhattan, but actually, there was a huge community of people dreaming of Balmain. So, for me, that was a symbol of success.”
Community is at the core of what Rousteing has created at Balmain. Whenever his decisions were questioned, he could call upon his huge Balmain army of followers for support and validation. They represented the changing world. “We were an army because we were fighting,” says Rousteing. “What now feels so spontaneous and so normal and so simple, it was not at all at the time.” His decade at Balmain helped shift the status of fashion and introduced the idea of a diverse, inclusive luxury. Looking back, he says, “I have grown up and I’m more an adult and we are no longer soldiers. If I can say, we won our protest.”
One of the longest-serving creative directors in fashion, he’s achieved so much, but he’s still only 35, and the role of the designer is one he continues to evolve. “It is not just sketching a fashion show and being friendly with some people in the press, which is what it was 10 years ago. Today it means using all of the tools in the world that will make your brand and your vision more relevant.” He describes the role of a 21st-century creative director as being like a screenwriter – “because in a weird way you write your story”.
Taken from Issue 66 of 10 Magazine UK – MY, HAPPY, PLACE.
Photographer Rob Rusling
Fashion Editor Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou
Text Claudia Croft
Hair Lyndell Mansfield at Of Substance using Schwarzkopf got2b
Make-up Francesca Daniella
Model Caren Jepkemei at Titanium
Casting Victoria Cassagnaud at Creartvt
Set Designer Lyndon Ogbourne