I am meeting Olivier Rousteing at Balmain’s new headquarters at Rue Pasquier in the 8th arrondissement, right after the end of the fall/winter 2017 haute couture shows. Sitting in a sunlit room, he is wearing black skinny jeans paired with a sleeveless black Nike t-shirt, a Nike cap, an all-gold Rolex and a hefty bunch of Cartier Love bangles and Tiffany T bracelets—just like any other cool tastemaker… or hip-hop royalty.
It’s an impressive space: An entire building that consolidates all the departments under one roof; including menswear, which now contributes a hefty share of the private company’s streams of revenue, and for which Rousteing is the perfect posterboy. “We are still keeping the original Rue François 1er office; that’s where Monsieur Pierre Balmain started the business,” Rousteing shares.
Rousteing clearly wants to make his own mark, and this showy and dramatic new space shouts “Olivier” in bold, glossy, gold lettering.
The rise of Olivier Rousteing has been nothing short of meteoric. In 2011, at the age of 24, he inherited the throne to this venerated French brand—after having spent two years at the women’s ready-to-wear department under the previous Creative Director, Christophe Decarnin. Decarnin, who brought commercial and editorial success to Balmain (who can forget the heady years of five-figure embellished jackets?) made a sudden exit from the brand in April 2011, supposedly due to exhaustion and industry burnout. Rousteing was the perfect replacement—handsome, young, sexy and incredibly talented. His reverence towards the House’s heritage, and fascination with ’70s decadence and ’80s glamour, belie his youthful disposition. The boy wonder brought Balmain into the hip-hop vernacular by employing Kanye West and Rihanna as campaign models. The rappers reciprocated, with Nicki Minaj and Kid Cudi dropping the B-word into their rap hits, catapulting Balmain into the Insta-generation’s vocabulary. Fans followed, with the recent fall/winter 2017 show achieving the highest overall social engagement during Fashion Week, reaching 1.9 million people.
As figures go, Rousteing has also brought commercial success to the House. In 2015, Balmain posted revenues of €121.5 million, and a year later, secured backing from Mayhoola for Investments, the emir of Qatar’s investment fund, which acquired 100 percent control of the brand. In 2017, Rousteing introduced accessories for fall, aimed at drawing more customers to the brand.
I sit down with the wunderkind who has shaken up the storied French House, and ask him what else is he bringing to Balmain to take it into a new dawn.
You brought a youthful, sexy twist to Balmain. What inspired you to do so?
I think what inspires me is my generation and that’s what I believe in. I love sexiness. I love glamour. I love confidence. I love being loud and saying what I have on my mind. All of those together have made Balmain really bold today, I’ve never been scared of anything and I love to be daring. I’m also shameless. At the end of the day, what I am trying to say [with Balmain] is really this: Don’t be scared, be yourself and say what you want.
So it is almost like a form of self-expression?
Yes absolutely, it’s like therapy.
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How do you strike a balance between expressing yourself and paying homage to Balmain’s strong heritage?
Monsieur Pierre Balmain was a man who believed in strong women. He was known for the “Jolie Madame” silhouette, created after World War II, which was a structured silhouette with a really tiny waist and strong shoulders, and rooted in tailoring. At the end of the day, I think I am channelling heritage that has already existed. He dressed the Princess of Thailand as well as Brigitte Bardot, Josephine Baker and Dalida. Diversity is also another thing that I’ve kept doing. Obviously, now I follow my own rules, but in those ways, we are really similar.
By dressing the strong women of today, you mean?
Yeah, just different generations. Today I dress Brigitte Macron, who is France’s First Lady, but at the same time I also dress Kim Kardashian West, Cindy Crawford, Gigi Hadid, Sophie Marceau. To me, this is what Balmain is, diversity.
Now, I want to go back to how you started. What’s your first fashion memory?
When I saw the Gianni Versace campaign with all the supermodels together: Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Linda Evangelista. That’s when I told myself; I love fashion!
If you weren’t in fashion, what would you be doing?
I would have been a singer or a dancer. I love music. I love pop culture. I love movements. I love the body. I love shape. I love aesthetics. I love self-expression, just as you said.
What’s the philosophy behind your approach to each collection?
It can start from an Instagram post I saw in the morning. It can come from a video clip or an exhibition. My approach to my collection is what I am feeling right there and then. And I just express it through clothes. My last menswear collection, for example, was about France. It was my reaction to the country’s current political climate and the changes [taking place]. So I thought the collection had to be based on French culture, with French music at the show. The stripes in the collection were supposed to be about being a Parisian. I wanted to capture a Western [vibe] mixed with L.A. glamour for the resort collection because of the opening of the Balmain store in L.A. So it all depends on what is happening around me.
Are you ever scared of being too honest in your approach?
No. I started by telling you that I’m shameless—which means that I’m never scared. In fact, I’m scared to be scared. Being scared is my biggest fear. And I’m not scared of being honest. You can never be too honest.
You mentioned Kim Kardashian West, who also became famous thanks to the Internet and social media. As the World Wide Web moves at a rapid pace, have you changed your opinion about it, compared to when you started your Instagram account a few years back?
Actually, no. Even a few years ago, I knew that social media would become a revolution in so many areas; not only in fashion, but also politics, people’s state of mind, and their lifestyle. When I started posting on Instagram, my publicist and manager were like, “How can you mix luxury with social media? You are a designer, why do you play with Instagram so much, especially when it’s only based on a momentary instinct, a click or a selfie?” I told them that it’s going to be a new way of communication. And their big question was, “Who are these people? ‘Luxury people’ are not on Instagram.” But I told them, “Yeah, but they will be.”
What made you so sure of it?
Because I believe luxury is also about feeling young and to always want to be younger. Why do you buy clothes? It’s to look beautiful or to look cool. The bottom line is, I knew social media would become a place where a lot of people would be. Now, I think everybody is on social media. Everybody is connected, checking their Instagram feed every morning, or maybe 10 times a day. That’s why I did it five years ago, only now it’s funny because people finally say that, yes, luxury can be on social media.
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Yes, and you’re still very active on social media today!
But, you know what I think is going to be next? I believe that magazines are going to be stronger than they are now. Magazines are starting to die and are no longer relevant because they have too much power yet not enough freedom; for so many reasons, like the influence of advertisers. The same thing is happening with social media—when your creativity is bought, people stop following you. Everyone will start going back to real events and timeless pictures. That’s why I’m sure magazines are going to bounce back in a different way. They will come back.
You’ve been so brave in following your instincts, is there anything you regret?
In your own opinion then, what is your biggest accomplishment?
You mean professionally, or in my personal life?
Because I’m so free—I had access to so many things so young—my dream is to be satisfied. I will always want more and more and more, and I wish something will satisfy me someday.My biggest dream is to say “I have enough and I’m happy with that.” I always try to do better and that can be exhausting. So I think it’d be nice if I could wake up one day and be like…
Yeah! Again, I’m not ashamed to say that, because I think I couldn’t have achieved what I have achieved today if I were easily satisfied. So this drive will always push me to do more and more. I think it can be both a good and bad thing.
What is modernity to Olivier Rousteing?
I see modernity as more of a concept than a trend. I don’t understand when someone tells me, “Oh, you’re very modern because you use social media.” I feel like there are other people who are more modern than me. Honestly, I’m not trying to be modern at all.
You mean you do what you do because you’re just being yourself?
What I am actually trying to be is to be timeless. I think being part of history is more important than being cool and modern. Because being modern can expire in six months or last only one season, while being timeless is forever. I think that is more ambitious.
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What’s next for you and Balmain?
Diversity; it is the most important thing in my life [right now] and it is the biggest topic that I want to express through fashion. Opening a global store in Singapore, which truly is opening the brand to a new world. It is what I’ve been dreaming of—discovering new territories, for me and Balmain to go global. In a way, Balmain has taught me how to grow and now, I’m teaching Balmain how to grow! It is the most incredible thing to switch roles, and I’m now guiding and directing the brand. You know, I was the Balmain baby and now, Balmain is my baby!