Exclusive Interview with Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing

Balmain, France, Olivier Rousteing, Fashion

Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing

Let me get the record straight before I go any further – I am not a fan of Balmain or the brand’s aesthetic. I never have been and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I do however appreciate and respect designers who are humble, down-to-earth and passionate. Olivier Rousteing, Balmain’s new creative director, is all of these things, hence why I feel compelled to share this interview. At the tender age of 26, he shows maturity and tenacity to carve his own niche for a brand that continues to have an incredibly loyal following . I see him going many places and hope you do too. Enjoy the interview.

Balmain, Olivier Rousteing, France, Fashion

Balmain Spring/Summer 2013

LUXURY brand Balmain has always been somewhat controversial among editors. The brand rose to fame in the late noughties with its in-your-face blinged out jackets, extortionately priced ripped jeans and must-see fashion shows styled by the uber cool French Vogue editor Emmanuel Alt. Customers loved it, but critics were on the fence. Then at the height of Balmainia last year, creative director Christophe Decarnin stepped down, leaving behind a big hole to fill.

More than a few eyebrows were raised when the job went to Decarnin’s second in command, the young, handsome and unknown Olivier Rousteing late last year.

“I was really scared about disappointing people that believed in me. When you take on this job you have so many supporters, so more than being afraid of the press, I didn’t want to disappoint those who believed in me like my team. It was scary. But I knew things were going to be different because it was under my control,” says Rousteing, who was 25 when he landed the coveted role.

One year later, and he seems to have found his groove. Last week he visited Hong Kong for the first time to officially inaugurate Balmain’s first freestanding store in Harbour City and to meet customers including pop singer Sandy Lam and supermodel Qi Qi. Although the boutique has already been open a year, he wanted to experience Asia in person, especially since the region is becoming more important for the brand.

“It was important to know the country because we are hoping to open more boutiques including one in Pacific Place next year.  We have very good sales here so I wanted to come to see the culture. I love the way women dress. It was nice because they wore everything from the simplest black jacket to the craziest outfit full of pearls,” he says his eyes wide with excitement.

Indeed the glamorous world of Hong Kong couldn’t be further away from France’s Bordeaux region, where he grew up. Although fashion wasn’t always on his radar, he loved sketching as a young boy and decided to enroll at renowned fashion school ESMOD (L’Ecole Supérieure des Arts et techniques de la mode). At 17, he continued his fashion education in Paris where he was inspired by designers such as Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni Versace and of course, Pierre Balmain. Soon he landed an internship at a couture house in Rome and three months later found himself working at Roberto Cavalli, under designer Peter Dundas.

“The first thing I learnt was to be responsible. Then came the real fashion education – everything from the vocabulary to the fabrics and the tricks. Mr. Cavalli was very sweet and the company is an empire so I was able to touch everything. We were located just outside of Florence so we had access to big print machines, leathers and embroiderers,” he says.

Balmain came onto the scene in 2009, when he was hired to work under Decarnin running the men’s and women’s studios. Although his personal aesthetic didn’t match the rock ‘n’ roll vibe popularised by Decarnin, he says the experience was inspiring, especially as the brand was on top of its game. When he accepted Decarnin’s job two years later, he knew he wanted to bring the house’s style closer to his.

“Before I managed the studio and was translating what [Decarnin] had in his mind and producing what he wanted. Then I realised that it was my face that was appearing on the catwalk, so I knew I had to make the brand more of me.

“Initially I wanted to move away from that rock ‘n’ roll vibe. Balmain has an amazing past – Christophe was part of it but Pierre Balmain and Oscar de la Renta created a chic Parisian style that I gravitated towards. What I am trying to do is to bring the house back to this couture level. Tailoring is important but I don’t want to forget that it is a French luxury house. It’s getting more chic, defined and sophisticated, while keeping the sexiness and glamour. It’s less rock n roll and more sexy couture,” he says.

For his debut spring/summer 2012 collection, Rousteing returned to the archives. Inspired by country and western stars during Las Vegas golden years in the 1960s and bullfighters costumes, he sent out bolero jackets, patchwork dresses, pajama suits and gaucho skirts. Then came this season’s collection which was inspired by Elizabeth Taylor and a Faberge egg given to her by Richard Burton. Cue plenty of Russian ornamentation and Cossack tailoring along with ornately designed high collar velvet dresses. His favourite piece he says is a black and white raffia jumpsuit that combines couture with sportswear.

“My new baby [spring/summer 2013] was inspired by Miami and Cuba. I love the idea of American dream, and I wanted to insert Latin power in the collection. While everyone is going minimal or dark, I wanted to keep it happy, fun and light.

“For me the connecting thread between all is couture – everything is based on shape and tailoring. Every collection is a travel journey – not only around the world but in time,” he says.

So far the new aesthetic has been popular with die hard fans who appreciate Rousteing’s softer take on the house’s glamourous aesthetic. That being said critics have commented that Balmain is out of touch with fashion’s current obsession with minimalism. This doesn’t bother Rousteing who is more concerned about carving the brand’s identity than following trends.

“I think what is modern about fashion today is that everyone is creating their own identity. You don’t have one trend that everyone follows. I don’t think we are not modern because we are not making Celine. I love Celine but there is space for everything. The day Balmain becomes another identity is when I am no longer there,” he says.

In addition to perfecting the ready-to-wear, Rousteing has also made accessories his priority. This month sees the launch of Balmain’s first handbag designed in collaboration with French designer Aurelie Bidermann. It will debut exclusively at Balmain Paris and Barneys New York before becoming available in Hong Kong.

Also top of his list is lowering prices. During Decarnin’s reign Balmain was as famed for its extortionate prices as its ostentatious clothes – something he’s hoping to change.

“We work a lot on making prices lower. Now you can get HK$40,000 dollar dress but also a sharp black jacket at a lower price. I want to offer something for everything,” he says.


First published in the South China Morning Post on 26 October 2012

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