He’s beautiful, talented and in touch with what women want. Vogue meets Balmain's young creative director, who strives to stay true to his ultra—glamorous, fearless warrior woman.
I arrive 10 minutes early for my interview with Balmain’s creative director Olivier Rousteing at the house’s atelier in Paris, and while I wait I do what one does with one's spare time: I check my Instagram. Coincidentally, just at that moment, Rousteing uploads a photo to his feed of Rihanna wearing a double denim look and showing some serious side boob. A few minutes later he publishes a shot of Claudia Schiffer, circa early 1990s, lying on the ground cupping her bare breasts, while another model holds her denim clad legs in the air. The accompanying hashtags are: #denimfriday, #sexyjeans, #young, #powerful, #modern, #love, #ﬁerce. I’m not familiar with denim Friday, but I know that the other tags carry more weight than generic search terms: they are a call to arms for the modern Balmain woman, dazzling fashion warrior that she is.
At 10am on the dot, we both down our iPhones, and I’m ushered into his ofﬁce. Rihanna’s Rigbz‘ Now is playing in the background and Rousteing looks rested and as attractive in the ﬂesh as people say he is. He’s just returned from a three—week break in Mykonos, which was "heaven", he says, though it got off to a rocky start. "My boyfriend and I broke up the day before the holiday started, so I was a bit sad, but I had all my friends with me and in the end, it was ﬁne."
Since his return, he’s been working tirelessly on his spring/summer ’14 collection, which (at the time of this interview) he has just under a month to complete. Spring will be an evolution of some of the ideas seen in autumn/winter 13/14. “I want to keep the spirit of the last winter; not the powerful 805 lady, but winter was important, because it was back to the rules, back to the French house,” he explains. "I want to keep the spirit of French Parisian house, with fabrics that remind you of old French touch, like hound’s—tooth, whiny comment dit—on vichy en anglais?"
He rushes to the door and sticks his head around the corner. “Can I ask a question? How do you say vichy; in English?”
"Gingham!" calls out a voice. "Thank you," he sings back, and then looks at me with a smile. “This collection will be very chic, but still playing with the sexiness that Balmain is known for.” In the overarching history of the house of Balmain, sexiness is a relatively new notion. Founder
Pierre Balmain’s original Vision was decidedly more demure (the French couturier was a contemporary of Christian Dior, (after all) but since Christophe Decarnin, Rousteing’s predecessor, shook up the house in the mid—2000s and kicked off 'Balmania', sexy has been its calling card.
Take the spring/summer ’14 collection, for example, for which a recent visit to Opera Garnier proved to be a moment of inspiration: Rousteing was quite taken with the exquisite ballerina costumes. And yet while there will be a pastel colour palette in the collection, don’t expect there to be girlish silhouettes or pretty, ﬂowing fabrics. “It’s like a modern ballerina: glam, bling, sexy!” he says extravagantly, "but at the same time she is really French."
And what about denim? I gesture to the mood board in the corner and think of his Instagram. "Yes, there will be denim, but I love playing with denim in a couture way," he says. "I want to be careful that the brand doesn’t become too [inﬂuenced by] street wear, [because] it won’t support the prices. Sometimes people spend money to say: ‘Oh, I bought this piece of this brand’, which you can ﬁnd at Zara for almost the same quality, so I want to place importance on quality and move away from the street aesthetic."
The “street aesthetic”, albeit a pumped—up, ultra-glam version, found its place in Decarnin’s time. During his tenure, terms like 'rock chic', 'glam—tart' and 'déshabillé' became the lexicon, Emmanuelle Alt the muse, and four—ﬁgure—priced T—shirts and distressed denim jeans were a mainstay.
Today, the provocative luxe-loving baroque'n'roll girl remains, but unlike in the past, when media hysteria (intentional or otherwise) was a driving force, Rousteing seems to be more focused on longevity. “I'm really proud of what I am doing [now] because it's more me than the ﬁrst collection." he says. "The customer buys more and more, which makes me really happy."
Over the past two years, the young designer has reﬁned his vision further. Price points, although high, are more diverse, and accessible lines like the pre-collections have been ﬂeshed out and have been given greater importance. Although Balmain would not provide oﬂicial ﬁgures on sales, lane jasper, owner of Land's End, a Sydney boutique that has stocked Balmain since 2008. says: "The ﬁgures are more constant [since Rousteing started]. He has harnessed the commercial possibilities of the brand by ensuring that the categories that clients are looking for in a collection are always there: the perfect tuxedo jacket, the embellished belt, the luxe blouse, the perfect leather pants."
“I think you can usually say that when the press loves something then the customer won't," Rousteing says light~heartedly. Does he ﬁnd that depressing? “No, it's not, its just that sometimes I think the fashion industry should be more, let's say, with their feet on the ground, and try
to understand what the customer wants. There can be more than just one style and there are other women who want to wear something else. It's always hard for me when some journalists come from a Celine show or a Balenciaga show, and they have those images of those girls, which I love. but at the end of the day, I’m not a minimal boy... my customer is not minimal."
Fittingly, Rousteing came to Balmain by way of Roberto Cavalli. At 19, he quit his studies at design school in Paris and moved to Milan to work with Peter Dundas at Cavalli. Rousteing worked across both men's and womenswear, and it was the time spent in Italian big business that gave him insight into the commercial side of the industry. “Roberto Cavalli is an empire; money was the most important thing," he explains. "We had 10 collections in a year, special projects, store openings, Cannes ﬁlm festival - and I came to Balmain with that education.’
In 2009, four years after Decarnin’s storied appointment. Rousteing arrived at Balmain. "I came to Balmain for him [Decarnin] and what he gave to the brand," he says. "I wanted to work with him and, more than that, I loved the power that he gave to this house - I wanted to be part of that. "When people say the 805 is Christophe, it's really hard to listen to, because, at the end of the day, I became Christophe’s assistant and head designer of the studio because I loved what he was giving the brand, so obviously, I also loved the 80s. I love Miami Vice, I love Magnum
P.I., I love Dynasty and Dallas I love the
“IT’S ALL ABOUT FRIENDSHIP AND WE’RE ALL SO HAPPY WORKING TOGETHER"
80s because of the aesthetic as well. you know? Wonder Woman. power shoulders. Joan Collins. That’s really what I wanted - it was over-the-top."
When Decarnin departed in March 2011. ﬁnding a replacement seemed like a sizeable challenge: not in the least because there were reports that he had stepped down due to 'stress- related reasons.' One month later, Rousteing, who was only 25 at the time, was promoted. Appointing an unknown name and someone so young was a move that rocked the industry (as did the portrait of the dashing designer that was distributed with the press release). The challenge was undeniably a daunting one.
“I was very happy about the offer, but, at the end of the day. I was hesitant, because obviously - and I don't want to talk about that [referring to Decarnin] — I saw how people can leave their job and be sad working in this Position," he admits. "It's a lot of pressure and a lot of stress."
His team and management rallied around him, though, and the support was so strong that he decided to that decided to accept. But he was clear from the outset: "I decided if I did take the job, [that] I just want to enjoy it and be a happy person. I put the music up loud, the people here are my friends - it’s all about friendship and we’re all so happy working together, and we are all young."
The energy in the atelier is undeniably infectious - far-ﬂung from the formal salons of other Parisian ateliers - and Rousteing's enthusiasm reverberates everywhere: the high-voltage shows, the dazzling collections and. on a more personal level, his Instagram. But such over- the-top glamour is not for everyone. "Balmain is one of the most controversial brands today; I’m not expecting neutrality," he happily admits. "You [either] love the Balmain girl or you hate her. It’s really hard to ﬁnd people who say: ‘Hmm, I don't know what to think about that."
The modern Balmain woman is certainly no wallﬂower, and Rousteing is her most ardent defender. "She’s powerful, she loves to be on show. she's fearless," he says proudly. "That's my lady. I want to stay true to that."