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“I Want to Push the Limits:” Olivier Rousteing on his Balmain Couture Debut

Photo: Francois Guillot / AFP / Getty Images

When it comes to making resolutions this New Year’s Eve, Olivier Rousteing, creative director of Balmain since 2011, should wish for an easier year . . . in 2020. Next year is already shaping up to be a biggie. It’s not just down to the recently announced couture the 33-year old designer will present in Paris this coming January. There’s also a documentary that he will be the subject of both professionally and personally, which is being directed by Anissa Bonnefont and produced by Canal Plus. While it’s not yet finished (Rousteing will see a first cut in the coming weeks), it’s currently planned to be released towards the end of 2019. But more of that later.

Rousteing of course has been pretty much making one-off couture pieces ever since he took the helm of Balmain—this year, for instance he dressed Jennifer Lopez when she was his guest at the 2018 Met Gala—and many of his ready-to-wear collections have been lavished with jeweling, beading, feathering, and embroidering. And not just his women’s; remember those terrific matching chain-mail tees and tuxes he did for his Fall 2018 men’s? Yet ironically, Rousteing’s couture might also showcase a different side to his design work, as he discusses below.

He certainly envisages showing his couture in a smaller environment than his regular shows, creating a more intimate experience. That comes at a time when he’s in a reflective (and it has to be said, upbeat) mood, something shaped by the year he spent being filmed for the documentary by Bonnefont. She was given no-holds-barred access to his work at Balmain, as well as to his personal life, just as the designer was delving into his birth origins; Rousteing has spoken freely in the past about being adopted into a loving family as an infant. It’s envisaged that the movie will depict him in an emotional (and it has to be said, brave) quest to find out more about his past.

Olivier Rousteing photographed in the September 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia

Olivier, I know you’ve been doing custom pieces for many years, and there has been a lot of high-level workmanship in the ready-to-wear collections, but why did you decide to formally launch Balmain couture?

For me, because it’s important that what we do reflects the fact that luxury and craftsmanship is part of the DNA of Balmain and of Paris. Everyone right now is struggling to figure out where to go, and it feels that I just have to go in my direction; I want to push the limits, of myself and the house, to bring couture back to Balmain again. I’m known for having a young crowd, whether it’s doing projects like Coachella, or campaigns with Rihanna. But couture can become part of the new generation too.

You know there’s this idea now that with what we all do . . . you can buy into something and be part of it. That’s important, but sometimes you also just want to do things for the sake of doing them. We have to look to the future, but that doesn’t mean we should forget our past. I want to mix my youth with this very French tradition. With what we’re doing . . . we’re creating the history of Balmain right now. It’s eight years [since I started] so many things have started from the womenswear; we did men’s, we did collaborations, we opened stores, we became a global name. Couture is our way to remember where we came from; where it all started.

Have you had to bring in new people, or expand your teams, because of the new couture operation?

The structure of the house has changed a bit; we’ve brought in different modelistes who can work on the couture. I’d like it to be a laboratory of craftsmanship, of fabrics and cutting—and of tailoring, it’s not just sequins! Tailoring was really important to Pierre Balmain. I’m going to work with Maison Michel on hats, bring back working with different kinds of suppliers and embroiderers to show the beauty of [what we can do in] Paris, and to push the limits of beauty. But I’m also trying to be . . . timeless. Trends are going so fast, one month, two months. What I remember growing up, seeing shows . . . what has stayed with me, what has lasted, are things that had real quality and vision, to . . . marque le temps.

Where will you present the couture?

It’s going to be at our new store on Rue St. Honoré. I’m known for loud music and extravaganzas and everyone dancing . . . but the couture is more about introspection. It will be something more intimate, a smaller crowd; I want to go back to those Paris salon shows of the 1960s and 1970s. The world is going really fast, and that’s great, but it’s important to find the balance. My balance can be the haute couture. And doing this show . . . it’s also a way of saying thank you to all those who’ve helped and supported me in the last eight years.

It’s interesting you used the word introspection. I think you’re often seen as this cool young man in a highly glamorous world. Yet from chatting to you over the years, I know there’s this whole other thoughtful, reflective side to you maybe people don’t always get to see.

I am known for all these millions of followers [on Instagram] and everything being big and bold. What’s interesting about doing couture . . . this is me looking at something else, looking for something else. I want to go back to something that has intimacy. It’s going to be interesting to see the evolution of the house from the beginning to today. It’s also a way to break the idea of how we use the word young, just like we’re breaking the way we use modern, or chic, or cool. We need to redefine them. These words need to have a meaning for the times we live in. Being young doesn’t only mean understanding—or designing for—the streetwear world.

You were starting to work on launching the couture as you were being filmed for the planned documentary on you and Balmain; has that been part of this more introspective moment too?

It’s been interesting going back, looking for my origins; the question of where I come from, and not being frightened of that, but embracing it. For 32 years I couldn’t define where I came from, and my father and mother were a question. But that created the man I am, and the world that I am. I’ve discovered where I came from, and I have discovered the battle of children, the battle of love . . . and the battle of non-love. And I have discovered that fashion is an incredible love. But we have to remember we are all human; it’s going to be interesting to see beyond the Balmain bubble, [to see] me as a young man facing cultural questions. There were a lot of question marks in my life. I don’t know how to say this in English, but . . . my biggest filter isn’t on my social media, but on how I have reacted to my life. I want the mask to fall to show a human being.

It’s pretty brave to put yourself out there, to be vulnerable, though I always think there’s a real strength in allowing oneself to be that . . . .

My goal [with this documentary] isn’t only for Balmain, but to give hope and strength for new generations; that no matter your story or your background, that you can achieve something. That’s the message. I couldn’t be happier [right now]. I have the capacity to do that because of my career; to not only show my vision of clothes, but my vision of life.

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