Olivier Rousteing, creative director of Balmain, speaks of his African roots and why the Land of the Pharaohs has forever been a place of endless inspiration.
Now into his 13th year as the creative director of Balmain, French designer Olivier Rousteing was 25 years old when he was selected to lead the Paris-based heritage house. Often described as a perfectionist and flamboyant, Rousteing creates collections recognized for their extreme attention to detail, a profusion of materials, embroidery, and craftsmanship, and as being somewhat autobiographical. With his resort 2023 collection, Rousteing pays tribute to Egypt, its culture and beauty as seen on these pages featuring Egyptian actress Salma Abu Deif, lensed by Egyptian photographer Bassam Allam. His inspired creations are amplified by his close collaboration with the premier Egyptian high jewelry brand Azza Fahmy. Together they created a new, old-world masterpiece – a gold-plated bustier reminiscent of a Ptolemaic plaque. Rousteing speaks exclusively to Vogue Arabia to celebrate Egypt with his love letter to the country and its people.
“Egypt has always been part of my love for the world. I am adopted and I didn’t know my origins until three years ago when I did my documentary Wonder Boy. Because of my features, there was always a possibility – or a belief – that I might be Egyptian. I didn’t know my mother, nor my biological father, but I always loved Egyptian culture and carried this idea that maybe, I came from there. There was no proof, but it’s as if my French parents met me and said, ‘You look like a pharaoh.’ It was such a beautiful story and I kept thinking about it until I finally discovered that I am from Somalia and Ethiopia, which are not so far from the North African country.
Because I always thought I was Egyptian, as a kid I was fascinated with the culture. I watched documentaries, learned the mythology of the god Osiris and all the gods of Ancient Egypt, and the history of Cleopatra, Nefertiti, and Tutankhamun. As I grew older, my feelings evolved. I started looking deeper into the details. I was determined to learn everything about the clothing, the colors, and jewelry. I was also thinking about Egypt when I started at Balmain. I did a first collection inspired by the country for SS19, in September 2018. I wanted to remind the world that even the beauty of our French culture is based on the beauty of many cultures.
In fact, my country and Egypt offer many parallels. For example, I love draping as did Mr Balmain, although he was inspired by Madame Grès. When you look at Egyptian sculpture, all the incredible clothing features draping. And I am obsessed with the pyramids. They represent both the maximal and the minimal. There is something so impressive about how futuristic the ancient civilization is and at the same time, it feels like it is the birth of the world. It’s timeless. This is the paradox that I love. Maximal, minimal, the future, and the past.
I like the flamboyance of life. When I say this, I mean that I like the details, the hard work, precision, and perfectionism. I also like the shine, the brightness. This is not just about ‘bling,’ but about what is in the details. For me, with Egypt, every detail is so specific and calculated, and features such exceptional construction. Egypt is mathematical couture and I treat my clothes, my themes, and my accessories in the same way. For me, my collections are mathematical couture. They are like art works – so detailed, the stripes on the clothes, the shoulder pads, the number of sequins, and the stones. For this collection, I worked with incredible Egyptian artist Azza Fahmy. The metallic bustier is a work of art and the molded pieces are like the gold masks of King Tutankhamen. For the accessories, I used a great deal of scarabs. In the 1950s, Mr Balmain also used them in his jewelry. The archives from 1945 were also inspired by the country and featured leopard print, an ode to Egypt in the Fifties. I am not independent of the house and my infatuation with the ancient civilization and with the maison’s archives connected many dots for me.
My love letter to Egypt is to remind the world that it is the birth of humanity, of mathematics, of architecture, and of beauty. It’s time to see the beauty of Africa more than ever. As for my Balmain Army, I love people who are unique, who are shaping the world, and who are not trying to be someone else. People who have something to say. We are all here to create a better world. All the people in my Balmain Army are here to deliver a message in their own field. I do believe that in the recent past, there wasn’t space for everyone, and I do think that it is my role in fashion to give a platform for expression of aesthetics and beauty that is not only Eurocentric.”
As told to Gay Gassmann
Photography and art director: Bassam Allam
Fashion director: Amine Jreissati
Hair and makeup: Ivan Kuz
Junior fashion editor: Mohammad Hazem Rezq
Producer: Sam Allison
Set design: Yehia Bedier
Digitech: Ali Jerome
Originally published in the January 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia