The dauphin of French fashion is loved by an army of supermodels and pop stars. In a new documentary, Balmain’s creative director, Olivier Rousteing, looks to his past to pave the way for the future. All roads seem to lead to the Middle East.
Ask almost anyone today to describe what the house of Balmain was like before the debut of designer Olivier Rousteing, in 2011 at age 25, and you will probably be met with blank stares. Those same people would undoubtedly be surprised to learn that the house that Pierre Balmain founded in 1945 was a womenswear label for prim and proper designs that featured full-skirted dresses with nipped waistlines, tailored day suits, and sweeping evening gowns. It remained as such long after his death in 1982. Balmain’s right-hand man, Erik Mortensen, stepped into the designer role at the French maison and Oscar de la Renta took the helm in 1993. For the better part of its history, Balmain has been the go-to label for ladies who lunched.
Originally printed in the September 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
With the arrival of Christophe Decarnin in 2005, Balmain began to reconnect with the modern woman. He laid the groundwork for a more rock ’n’ roll, shimmer and sequins, and steeply priced sartorial proposition. But if Decarnin built the Balmain rocket, it is Rousteing that supplied the maison with fuel and fire and finally lit the flame for it to blast off into the fashion stratosphere.
Since he took his first bow at Balmain, Rousteing has been on a mission to change the way women relate to fashion and how the fashion world perceives them. Determined to make diversity intrinsic to its DNA, he has worked with Vogue Arabia cover stars Rihanna, Gigi Hadid, and Iman, as well as Beyoncé and Jane Fonda. They might be different races, sizes, and ages but all Balmain women have a few things in common: strength, drive, and the power of their convictions.
“I’ve always been surprised about the lack of diversity in fashion,” states Rousteing, sitting behind his giant, black marble work desk. He is casual yet stylish in an oversized white and red stripped sweater, skinny jeans, and a black baseball cap. “I had to go through a lot to push diversity. Initially, people didn’t understand what I was doing. In reaction to some of my campaigns, people were like, ‘Are you kidding me? Why did you do that? It’s a French luxury brand!’” Critics also commented on his inclusion of hip-hop music at shows. “I didn’t care,” he says. “I’m not going to listen to 70s and 80s songs for the rest of my life.” In fact, his FW18 offering is set in the year 2050. The futuristic theme offers metallic-finish tailoring and prismatic holographic hues. Sprayed against figure-hugging dresses, the light flashes resemble comets, zipping across a black, PVC sky.
Rousteing was adopted by a white, middle class couple when he was one year old, and was raised in conservative Bordeaux, France. An academic student, he grew up obsessed with the US and pop music, and fantasized about his origins and where his birth family came from. He enrolled at Esmod (Ecole Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode) in Paris. In 2003, he got his start at Roberto Cavalli, where he stayed for eight years, quickly moving up the ranks to become the head of the womenswear division. He left the house in 2009, to join Balmain. When he took over from Decarnin in 2011 (having worked under the designer for two years), Rousteing became the second-youngest designer in the world to run a major French fashion house, following Yves Saint Laurent, who became head designer at Dior at 21.
Analyze Rousteing’s body of work and it is evident that he is consciously building his own family around him – people he can relate to and feels a profound connection with. It is one filled with self-assured men and powerful women personified in his idea of a Balmain Army. “It’s in the eyes, it’s the attitude, how they walk as if they have something to say, how they move, and how they are going to be strong on the runway,” he says of the models he chooses to personify his brand, adding, “Those girls are not just models; they are soldiers fighting for new rules in fashion.”
This idea of finding, building, and maintaining connections is one of the reasons Rousteing has such affection for the UAE, and Dubai in particular. He often visits the emirate, he shares, while looking out of his office’s giant wall of windows that offer a bird’s-eye view of Parisian rooftops. “Many of my friends are from there; it’s an incredible place. There is something in Dubai that is kind of magical. Also, there are no paparazzi! You feel really free. I love the culture. You have the craziness of the city but you can also just live in a desert and enjoy life. The Middle East has so much amazing history, but at the same time, it’s looking to the future.” His familiarity with Arab iconography underlines this. Recent collaborations with Beyoncé, including the design of a bespoke Nefertiti-inspired cape for her Coachella headline act, express his ambition to dress strong women in clothes that amplify their power.
Rousteing points to this magazine as an example of what makes the UAE so dynamic. “I think Vogue Arabia is new but at the same time it’s strong because it mixes the culture of the country while bringing occidental fashion to its audience. It makes a great mix. We also shouldn’t forget that Middle Eastern culture is important for business. Sometimes Western people don’t see that – or they know it, but don’t talk about it.”
As an adopted child, the concepts and importance of culture and heritage have always been at the forefront of Rousteing’s mind. For more than a year, a documentary film crew has been following his every move; recording him as he lives his life, creates his collections, and continues to build the brand and grow his Balmain Army. But the documentary goes deeper, and digs into Rousteing’s family background
“It’s weird when you are 32 and you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where your color comes from, or what happened to your parents,” Rousteing comments, touching his sculpted face, renowned for its high cheekbones, full lips, and smooth, brown skin. “Why did they take this big decision to not keep this baby?” he asks, speaking of his infant self in the third person, perhaps unconsciously separating himself from the past. He continues: “The documentary is going to be based on the incredible collaboration of one year of me facing where I come from. This is what is interesting about it: it’s a real documentary! It’s not just me in my atelier or making a dress.”
When discussing how he wants to be remembered 50 or 100 years from now, Rousteing’s focus isn’t on his past and what that might reveal. Rather it comes down to a feeling. That of being accepted for who he is. “I think people will remember me for having made women feel strong, daring, and not scared of good tastes or bad tastes. Just for being themselves.”
The Olivier Rousteing documentary is slated for release early 2019.
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Photography: Julien Vallon
Style: Gemma Bedini
Hair: Nabil Harlow
Makeup: Gregoris Pyrpylis
Models: Cindy Bruna, Pauline Hoarau, Tami Williams
Shot on location at The Peninsula Paris
With thanks to Aure Tessandier, Lea Wu