When a designer takes over the creative lead at an established label, there’s always the fear that they’ll live in the shadow of its founder. That’s only amplified in prestigious luxury houses where the brand’s identity is so intertwined with that of its, frequently namesake, founder. Making one’s own mark while still honoring the label’s DNA is a careful balancing act and few designers have managed this challenge better than Olivier Rousteing.
Rousteing took over the helm of Balmain eight years ago at just 25 years old. Despite his young age – arguably even because of it – the historic Parisian house has since undergone a renaissance. Rousteing has successfully added his own signature to the luxury brand, while still honoring the house’s chic French luxury aesthetic and penchant for glamour established by Pierre Balmain. He’s also brought the brand into the 21st century without compromising on its heritage.
“Some people call me disruptive and some people call me controversial, but I never tried to be controversial," he tells me when we sit down for an exclusive interview at the opening of Balmain’s new flagship store on Rue Saint Honoré. "I'm not a genius. I'm not a revolutionary. I'm just trying to be myself.”
After Yves Saint Laurent, Rousteing is the second-youngest designer to ever take the creative lead at a French fashion house. Prior to assuming the role in 2011, he'd only spent two years as the label's women's ready-to-wear designer working closely with then creative director Christophe Decarnin. Being thrust into the spotlight has forced Rousteing to grow a thick skin – fast – and to learn to trust his instincts.
“When you do your first show, you're just glad if the model doesn't fall on the runaway. That's your biggest fear,” he says. “After your first collection, you understand that fashion is a huge business where people can love you or hate you. You have to be strong enough to face the critics and say, "This is who I am. I would rather be hated for who I am than be loved for who I am not."
At 24 years old, I was really genuinely a dreamer of fashion. If you ask me at 33 years old, I know my shit.
Being himself involves acting like any other individual that's grown up with constant digital access and sharing his life and world via social media. But as a creative director for a storied luxury fashion house, it means speaking to a savvier and much younger audience than the brand did prior to his arrival, which he does through his designs, campaigns, and social media.
“I think people saw that I was authentic and spontaneous in my posts and they saw that I was just genuinely happy to communicate who I am and what I do,” he explains. “When I started with my first social media posts in 2012, people were criticizing social media as a cheap platform to promote fashion. And I just remind them 20 years ago when we start to sell clothes online, people were like saying that luxury cannot be sold on the internet. Look how it is now.”
Many luxury brands have struggled to carve out the digital space they want to fill, as the nature of social media goes against the sense of secrecy and mystery that they traditionally uphold. But Rousteing's approach speaks to the current demand for greater transparency, and it's paid off. While the fashion house is still smaller in size and revenue compared to its contemporaries such as Louis Vuitton and Dior, its digital reach is disproportionately large. Rousteing alone has 5.3 million followers, significantly more than peers in the role such as Virgil Abloh’s 3.9m and Kim Jones’ 625k.
As with his penchant for selfies, Rousteing is often criticized for watering down the prestige of the luxury house by choosing pop cultural “celebrities” to front his campaigns. The famed Balmain army – a power troop of women with a massive combined Instagram following – is now as much a part of the brand's DNA as embroidered epaulet blazers.
"It came from me from my fall/winter 2014 collection. I had Rihanna in my campaign and I started to be close to Kim and to so many different kinds of women, and I realized that those women have such strong voices and so many things to say to the world,” he explains. "They're soldiers and we are creating an army to fight against what we don't believe in in the world, which is racism, exclusivity, conformism, and the fashion system."
The women that makeup Balmain's army feature in the brand's campaigns, on the runway, on Rousteing’s Instagram, and also regularly dressed in the brand when they appear at events. It's a full 360-degree approach that's hard to replicate. Rousteing is, essentially, surrounding himself with his friends, who conveniently are the most powerful names in modern culture. Take Kim and Kanye, in 2014 they fronted Balmain’s advertising campaign, then the two showed up at the 2016 met gala in suitably embellished Balmain outfits. He and Kanye then released a joint music-cum-campaign video and Kim continues to regularly appear on Rousteing’s Instagram.
“It's about defining the times. I want to be a witness of my time and when I first met Kim I knew she would change the world."
“You can definitely give her [Kim] credit for being one of the first to build that community of followers that wanted to see her lifestyle, her story, be part of her world. You might like, you might dislike, who cares? The reality is that she had a point on what she was seeing at the time that she was seeing it.
“When I shot her with Kanye, I think it was interesting for me because he was witnessing what was going to change the world," Rousteing days. "Kanye was one of the first one to bring streetwear into luxury. We all talk about sneakers in luxury, but who launched the Yeezy? I'm sorry to say, but why don't we recognize the talent of people at the time that they build it?”
Inclusivity is another word Rousteing drops throughout the interview, whether he's talking about casting or his experience as an adopted child. “Since I was young, I always fought to be recognized as a French citizen. When I grew up in my family, I could see people looking at me like, ‘Oh, you're black but your parents are white.’ So this is something that I always kept in my brain and my soul.”
“It's really funny to see everybody today using inclusivity and diversity in their message – I'm really happy to see that of course – but just go on the runway and check three years ago if they were so inclusive.”
This fight for diversity carries through to the sensitive question of the front row. On the whole, who you sit in the front row is an indication of whose opinion matters the most to you, which is why traditionally critics were favored over customers. “Front row is a big question. It’s important to talk to the fashion elite and the fashion intellectuals, but right now, let's be honest, a review of a fashion show doesn't tell you if you're going to sell or not,” he says. “At some point you need to decide do you want to be a designer for the front row or do you want to be a designer for people actually wearing your clothes? Fashion is a business.
Rousteing continues on the topic of business, “No matter if the fashion crowd loves you or not, at the end of the day you need to build a business out of your clothes. People have to realize that brands become bigger when the aesthetic is supported by the people that actually buy it.”
The numbers prove it. According to Business of Fashion, Balmain’s chief executive Massimo Piombini said that 2018 revenues are up 20 percent year on year and that the business will have doubled in size by 2019 over the last three years. And it's not going to stop there. In the last six months, the luxury label has undergone a series of major changes that nod to its ambitious plans to modernize the brand beyond its digital presence. This started out with the redesign of the brand’s logo – the first time it had been touched in 70 years – and was followed by the reintroduction of haute couture after a 16 year hiatus, and finally the opening of the new flagship on the acclaimed Rue Saint Honoré in Paris, which is the blueprint for a series of global boutiques set to open in the next year.
Critics will continue to knock Rousteing's pop-star like image and apparent indifference to the traditional codes of fashion, but the numbers on Instagram and on the balance sheets continue to climb upwards proving he's on to something. Whether this momentum will continue as the pace of social media slows only time will tell, but what's certain is Rousteing will continue to march his own path (with followers and celebrities in tow).