Our New York editor gives a detailed account of what went down on October 20, the day of unveiling of Balmain’s collaboration with H&M to press. You might have seen the black-and-gold packaged Balmain burgers handed out during the after party by now on Instagram, but did you know the truffle grilled cheeses were better? And that this isn’t Olivier Rousteing’s first involvement with H&M? Walk through the day with us and learn all the undisclosed details below.
Prepping for the Day
My phone starts blaring as loud as a fire truck, which means it’s eight o’clock in the morning. Still groggy and tired from the late night I had, I force myself into the shower. I had planned this intentionally — to shampoo my hair in the morning instead of before bed as I normally do — because I wanted to look good. But I start to hate myself for having to get up earlier; I hate the fact that I have to sit in the subway for an hour to get from the Upper East Side to the Financial District.
I take a bit too much time prepping in front of the mirror, confused about what I should wear with the not-warm-but-not-cold-either weather. Then I remember a piece I got from H&M’s first Studio runway collection, a faux patent leather vest lined with faux shearling so oversized that I’ve been too intimidated to wear it for nearly two years. “Today is the day,” I think to myself. After all, it is the day of H&M’s unveiling of its collaboration with Balmain. I put on the vest and realize I’m wearing head-to-toe black with an all-black leather bag; it’s dreadful. But it’s too late to change. I put on sneakers, cursing my disability with heels, suspecting that I will have to run around like a headless chicken from morning to night for this H&M thing. And the fact I don’t share an aesthetic preference for Balmain doesn’t add to my enthusiasm. I would rather wear an olive tarp than a tight, plunging mini.
I already went through the whole process with Alexander Wang when he put out a sporty collection for H&M the same time last year. Living in New York as a fashion editor and reporter got me somewhat immune to any industry hype, almost jaded. So I’m not expecting much excitement from the H&M x Balmain press conference by World Trade Center, scheduled for 10am and for which I am late.
Press Conference with Vogue & Olivier Rousteing
It’s a much smaller conference this time than the A.Wang one. Thankfully, there’s one seat left in the center of the crowd, and an annoyed Balmain rep escorts me there. “It hasn’t started yet,” she says with a French accent and a forced smile.
Not long after, Nichole Phelps (director of Vogue Runway) comes on stage, followed by Olivier Rousteing and another woman. The woman is Ann-Sofie Johansson, an H&M “creative advisor” and former lead designer. With Phelps moderating, the three begin the press conference, structured more like a panel discussion.
I’ll omit their usual, cliche spiels (“Working with H&M is an honor”), but the conference, for which H&M flew out countless editors from across Europe and Asia (even India), actually turns out to be pretty interesting.
Rousteing was appointed as Creative Director of Balmain Paris at the unbelievable age of 25. His collection for H&M is a roundup of his best sellers from the past four and a half years, like his signature embellished tailored jackets and wide-shoulder dresses. But his affair with H&M started years before his term at Balmain: He recalls his favorite piece of clothing as a teenager was an H&M leather perfecto from 15 years ago; and when Roberto Cavalli collaborated with the fast fashion house 10 years ago, Rousteing was his assistant.
“I used to stand in the H&M lines,” Rousteing says, squinting up to remember the past. “What clothes was I wearing then? It’s better you don’t know,” he jokes. The designer confesses that he used to be a hippie, wearing flare pants and an afro. “I’m part of the H&M generation.” Celebrating the designer’s youth and energy, a reporter offers to sing him Happy Birthday. So we do.
Every piece from the collaboration is on display at the conference, some hung on racks and some encased in glass boxes. I get the opportunity to touch and feel them, even try them on. While bloggers who I’ve never heard of frantically snap selfies of themselves wearing the coats, I frantically isolate myself with a pair of shoes to take a moody Instagram shot. I’m actually quite impressed by the clothes; they are strong individually, especially the embroidered tops and leather pants.
When describing the collection, H&M’s Johansson uses the words “opulent, glamorous, sexy” — a complete opposite to Alexander Wang’s casual sportswear line. “It’s important to do different things,” she says, but not before admitting that there were difficulties. “The luxe details were a challenge for us, like the black and white beaded dress with over 25,000 pearls,” elaborates the Swedish native. But what immediately follows this statement is H&M’s rehearsed motto: “Everyone should get a piece of fashion. Design shouldn’t come at a price.” Sitting in the audience, I quietly wonder to myself what people will think when they see the $650 price tag on one of the men’s jackets (but undoubtedly the best piece in the collection).
By now, the symbiotic benefits between H&M and any collaborating designer are obvious: H&M elevates its image; the participating brand gets exposure. In the case for Balmain, the French house’s H&M clothing will be stocked in 250 doors worldwide, many in countries where Balmain lacks presence. “I wanted to achieve affordable couture,” says Rousteing. “And I can reach so many more people and continents [with H&M].”
To cater to the different audiences, Rousteing made sure to include volume drivers across different categories. There’s the party dress, the formal jacket, the t-shirt — “because all men and women are different.” What unifies the range is that everything reflects the young designer’s love of dance, music and pop culture. For Balmain, that means dramatic French Baroque-style tailoring and draping, elaborate adornments, and meticulous embroidery.
Rousteing’s favorite piece from the collection is the double breasted jacket with lapels and pearls. “It’s in a museum, but you can have a version of it. I always need a tailored jacket. A jacket is my life. I’m very French in that way.”
The one item in the collection that isn’t so talked about is the fragrance. Rousteing also created a perfume for this collaboration, which will release a month after the clothing.
To complement the anticipated diverse consumer reach of the H&M collaboration, Rousteing called on a diverse range of models for his campaign. “For me, it was literally like building a nation.” His main message is one of unity among diversity, manifested through an army of his most glamorous model friends. Representing the women are Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Jourdan Dunn, supported by Hao Yun Xiang and Dudley O’Shaughnessy, who altogether seem to create a rather handsome sampling of the nation he speaks of. Rousteing states, “I want to remember these moments for life, so I want to do it with my friends. It’s about sharing, helping, supporting people who support me — a squad, as you’d say.”
The Balmain designer’s circle of famous gal friends is well known. He has over a million followers on Instagram, and he is regularly tagged in photos by others who are also mega-Insta-popular (Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Kim Kardashian respectively have over seven, 39 and 49 million followers at the time of this article). Johansson, while dismissing the fact that Rousteing’s social media presence had anything to do with H&M’s selection of him, does admit it is a huge added bonus.
The way the campaign behind-the-scenes video was shared was starkly unconventional. Rather than running with carefully edited press releases by third-party publicists, Rousteing simply uploaded a clip on Instagram. It was of Kendall Jenner attempting to vogue and twerk, going viral in no time and allegedly angering the publicity team.
Rousteing credits Instagram as the main platform through which he can communicate with his consumers and fan base. “What’s so amazing about Instagram is the feedback from the people that love you. What’s better is the feedback from the people that hate you.” It’s also a reality check for him; he says, “I got so many things when I was young. Everything is not in my office and my glamorous friends. [With Instagram,] I can keep in contact with other struggles out there.”
It seems that Rousteing will continue to embrace social media. He kindly suggests, “If you don’t want to know, you can unfollow me.”
If you plan on regramming or sharing snaps of your own cops come November, just remember that the hashtag is “HMBalmaination” NOT “HMBalmainNation.” I made that sore mistake.
Runway & Back Street Boys Show
After the press conference, I’m back in front of my computer digesting what I’d heard. I catch up on unanswered emails. I work. It’s four o’clock and I realize I haven’t eaten anything all day. I get a salad out of starvation and guilt.
Seven o’clock tiptoes behind me and jumps me from the back. Startled and scrambling to not be late (again), I run out of the office toward the H&M x Balmain Nation runway venue, located on a corner of Wall Street next to the New York Stock Exchange. It will be “beyond fashion!,” Rousteing had exclaimed in the morning.
At the entrance, those who were invited are greeted by subway ticket machines. The intention seems to be to insert the physical invitations (which were hand-delivered) inside of it, but no one bothers to. It is definitely a nice touch, and makes complete sense after watching the campaign video which would be shown later. There are also two separate bars, and dashing servers with hors d’oeuvres like truffle grilled cheese and spinach bread.
An hour passes, and invitees are finally let inside the actual runway. Spanning two floors separated by LED-lit stairs, the usually abandoned concrete space is turned into a night club. The personnel doesn’t care about where I go because I didn’t get a front row seat; actually, I didn’t get a seat at all (how dare they???). Scouting for the best spot from which to snap lovely Insta photos led me to Section C, a promising corner right by the mouth of the stairway.
Alas, the show begins. A dozen flat screen TVs mounted throughout the venue shows a minute-long video of Jenner and team inside of a futuristic subway car, combatting unknown evil via voguing and Dragon Ball attack gestures. Then a crew of pop dancers start to march down the runway, followed by incessant twerking and a DJ somewhere shouting “H AND M BALMONG! H AND M BALMONG!”
Yellow strobes suddenly focus on Kendall Jenner, who opens the show in pieces that were never shown before (and presumably will not be available for sale). Supermodels like Alessandra Ambrosio, Karlie Kloss, Joan Smalls, Jessica Stam, Toni Garrn and more also walk. I am floored. Although the same caliber of models walked Alexander Wang’s show last year, this venue is much smaller, so I see the models much closer up. A.Wang had something like 500 attendees and eight rows of seats while Balmain only has two.
Voguers interrupt the show with a dance intermission, giving some models time to switch outfits. The second round of catwalking ends with a finale by Gigi Hadid. Kendall and Gigi sharing. How Nice.
When the lights dim, everyone prepares to bolt from their spots for the pop-up line, but the shouting DJ is not done with us. “Backstreet’s back, alright!” comes on the stereos and I cannot believe my ears. Out from where the voguers were comes the Backstreet Boys, snapping their fingers and gliding across the runway, singing. Actually singing their songs from 1993.
Now it’s a real madhouse. Everyone jumps from their seats and rushes toward the stage on the first floor, squealing and howling. It doesn’t make sense, but apparently Rousteing can do whatever he wants. All five members of the Backstreet Boys are there, dancing in perfect sync. After three songs, they thank Rousteing. “Thank you Olivier! For everything you’ve done for us!” What?
Pop-Up Shop & Balmain Burgers
I decide to bring my tired body home instead of going through the grueling war zone of the pop-up. There’ll be another pre-shopping event for press anyway, and probably some gifting too. I would have liked to get my hands on the headphones, beanie or t-shirts, but if it’s meant to be, I can buy them next month. On my way out I was gifted a velvety green scarf, and that’s enough of a memento for me.
I later find out about the black and gold packaged burgers and fries given to after partiers. I mourn. Fellow editors who were there attest to how good they were.
If I didn’t need to shower or answer emails, I would say this was a pretty good day. It was a great day, but it didn’t change my life. I was humbled, however; my initial apathy for Balmain and Olivier Rousteing grew into a sort of admiration. The guy’s definitely got talent. In the least, he’s got power. I probably still won’t wear shiny beaded dresses, though.
His buzzing collaboration with H&M is extremely timely. Balmain’s first New York store is set to open uptown in a few weeks. I might shop the H&M collection out November 5 (and the Eau de Perfume out December 3), I might not. After all, I still get compliments on my H&M x Alexander Wang rain jacket, but I’ve never used the shoulder bag.