The charming Olivier Rousteing is bringing his flamboyant and powerful take on Balmain to H&M customers all over the world. Here’s what the music-loving designer has to say about turning couture into streetwear, the question of diversity in the fashion industry, and having more than a million followers on Instagram.
Olivier Rousteing, creative director of the French house of Balmain, talks a mile a minute, even in his second language of English. Given that he’s so charming and easy to talk to, it’s not hard to see why Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, Kate Bosworth and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley find him a fabulous friend, while powerful fashion editors, journalists and stylists consider him a compelling voice in the business.
He has a lot to talk about these days. Since taking the helm of Balmain, a legendary French house with haute couture roots, at the age of 25 in 2011, Rousteing has breathed new life into the label, bringing it to the attention of a younger, hipper audience. He’s also proud to be the first designer of mixed race to lead a French maison and, as such, champions diversity. And now, he is set to launch a collaboration with H&M, featuring his particular brand of glamour, Parisian chic and empowerment. Forget talk of the town – Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain is set to become the talk of the planet.
That Balmain is one of the hottest labels right now is undeniable. The rest of fashion is finally catching up with its maximalist aesthetic; the most talked-about women and men in the world wear Balmain because they genuinely adore the clothes; and Rousteing has amassed one of the biggest followings on Instagram of any fashion designer (one million and counting). For all the obvious bling and sex appeal, however, Rousteing’s collections are underpinned by jaw-dropping craftsmanship and sharp tailoring. He calls himself an “architect of clothes”, literally rendering his intricately embellished and structural silhouettes in 3D on a computer rather than sketching by hand, despite being an excellent draughtsman.
And then there’s Rousteing’s “Balmain Army”, who are often found in pieces such as a heavily beaded bodycon dress inspired by a Fabergé egg, or a strong-shouldered jumpsuit in a jewel tone, cinched in at the waist with a gold belt. It’s through them and Balmain that Rousteing is keen to express broader ideas of diversity and inclusivity, which he feels are sorely lacking in fashion. He makes it a point to feature models of different races and ages in catwalk shows and campaigns. He believes his generation should be considered a valid voice, in the industry and society at large. He pushes for the use of social media in addition to traditional channels. He insists that while Balmain is rooted in French luxury, the future clearly lies in popular culture. “I think if luxury fashion doesn’t start to open the door, it’s not going to be luxury any more,” he says. “You’ll only have the same people, again and again and again.”
For all the serious talk, Balmain is ultimately about having a good time. In that deep-V embroidered dress and rope-detail stilettos, or floor-length gown with sheer lace panels, or even a simple double-breasted blazer with gold-tone buttons, the Balmain woman is simultaneously the envy and the life of the party. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the appeal. People are often drawn to happy, confident and sexy types, and that’s all it takes to be in Olivier Rousteing’s world.
In advance of the launch of the Balmain x H&M collaboration, which will be in stores on 5 November, we caught up with Rousteing in Paris for an exclusive interview. Talking that mile a minute, he’s going to charm us all.
I’m a young designer, I live with my generation. My main influence is my generation, especially music.
WHAT’S THE CONCEPT OF THE BALMAIN X H&M COLLABORATION?
”It’s a celebration of all the stories I’ve been telling at Balmain for the past five years – signature pieces – and making them accessible to the world. Making it younger, fresher and more 2015. I think about it more as streetwear. Actually, it was a really beautiful challenge to make this Balmain couture become streetwear.”
BY “STREETWEAR”, DO YOU MEAN FOR EVERYONE?
”Exactly. That’s why for the collaboration, we have the hashtag, #HMBalmaination. We’re going to be a strong nation conquering the world!”
AND WHAT WILL THEY ALL BE WEARING?
”There are party dresses that look like armour – they are so worked that you feel like a warrior – but also bodycon dresses, leather trousers, tailored jackets and amazing faux furs. Every single item, you’ll be able to recognise it. Also, Balmain is known for its craftsmanship and the richness of the clothes, so keeping the couture aspect was really, really important. You’ll find craftsmanship in all the pieces from the collaboration.”
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE UNIVERSE OF BALMAIN IN GENERAL?
”Flamboyant. And there is a lot of sexiness, power and glamour. Obviously, my sexy is not an easy sexy because it’s not about showing a lot of leg or skin. Instead, it comes from confidence and an attitude – men and women who believe in themselves. And are daring, because you have to be daring to wear a Balmain outfit.”
DO FLAMBOYANCE, SEXINESS AND GLAMOUR COME FROM YOU PERSONALLY?
”In a way, I go back more to where Balmain was originally, with Pierre Balmain. He created this Jolie Madame silhouette that was really structured, with a belt and strong shoulders. It was created after the war and showed the power of the women during that time, so I’ve literally kept that part, but updated it for 2015. It’s a modern Jolie Madame. He also made couture and loved the jet set, dressing Thai princesses, for instance. I feel like I’m not so different from Pierre Balmain, but people obviously don’t see it because I wear my tank tops too low and I listen to pop music or hip hop.”
HOW IS THAT AN ISSUE?
”Some people don’t get me because I’m not from their generation. They just love music from the 1980s. But why can’t I love music from the 1990s or 2000s? I’m a young designer, I live with my generation. My main influence is my generation, especially music. Hip hop and pop music are what I’ve grown up with. But they’re like, how can couture be mixed with pop and hip hop? I say this is the world today.”
IS THAT WHAT #HMBALMAINATION STANDS FOR – THE MODERN WORLD?
”I’m mixed race, and that inspires me. I speak, have spoken and will continue to speak about diversity and ‘mixity’ with Balmain. What H&M represents today is exactly like my vision of the modern world. They talk to different ages, money ranges and different races. They talk to the street straightaway – I wish luxury could actually work in the same way. So I really identified with H&M, and this is honestly why I said yes to the collaboration. This is something really emotional for me.”
DO YOU FEEL A RESPONSIBILITY TO SHOW DIVERSITY, WHICH PERHAPS MOST FASHION LABELS RARELY DO?
”When they do, they don’t believe in diversity – it’s only about business. For me, it’s all about believing. My last show, Alessandra Ambrosio opened, she’s a mum with two kids. Then Jessica Stam, Lily [Donaldson] and Adriana Lima, who’s 34, all amazing. After that, we had Issa [Lish], who’s kind of a new face, then Constance [Jablonski], who’s French, a classic beauty. I could go on forever. I love Binx [Walton] as much as I love Rosie [Huntington-Whiteley]. I believe in strong women.”
THEY ALSO ALL HAVE STRONG PERSONALITIES.
”Exactly. I feel that fashion has started to have too many new faces. You don’t know who they are because you just see them for two months, then people move onto the next girl who’s going to last only five months. So what’s the point?”
IS THIS WHY YOU ALSO CHOSE TO FEATURE CELEBRITIES SUCH AS RIHANNA AND KIM KARDASHIAN IN SOME OF YOUR CAMPAIGNS?
”Yes. It was important for me to also use muses and big stars that I love, because at that point of my life they expressed the fashion world more than models. It’s hard to have top models nowadays because fashion doesn’t push for them like they did before. But when I had Rihanna or Kim or Kanye, it was to show the people who inspire me, people who have something to say to the world. I’m proud to welcome them into the fashion world. And my world.”
I think Instagram keeps my feet on the ground and shows that I’m not a designer in some tower.
RIHANNA, KIM, KANYE, THE MODELS YOU REGULARLY FEATURE IN YOUR SHOWS… I GET THE FEELING THAT YOU HAVE GENUINE FRIENDSHIPS WITH THESE PEOPLE.
”It’s not only them, but also people in my studio. When I believe someone is amazing, I just want to have them in my life. These relationships came really naturally, it’s love. And with ‘Ri’ or Kim and Kanye, they are people that I love, who inspire me, who I cry with, laugh with, I can share secrets with.”
WHAT IS IT ABOUT BALMAIN THAT APPEALS TO THEM, ALONG WITH OTHER WOMEN AND MEN AROUND THE WORLD?
The fact that they feel really strong, powerful, and can rock the world. This can be with a simple tailored jacket or a really crazy dress. When you wear Balmain, you know that you’re going to be the hit of the party. Or wherever you go. That, and you feel like a warrior because the clothes look like armour.
IN REGARDS TO SOCIAL MEDIA, BALMAIN IS QUITE PROGRESSIVE COMPARED WITH OTHER ESTABLISHED FRENCH HOUSES, BUT HOW DID THEY REACT AT FIRST?
”At the beginning they were kind of afraid, but business-wise, it has worked. Thanks to me, they realised it’s the new platform for communication and the most sincere. Of course, magazines are not as free as social media – they have commitments and obligations. That’s the reality. With social media, such as Instagram, you actually share your collection with followers, and if they don’t like it, they’ll unfollow. It represents freedom and sincerity.”
WHAT IS IT ABOUT INSTAGRAM IN PARTICULAR YOU ENJOY?
”It’s the best way to share the fashion world with people, to share my life, my selfies, whatever I do. I’m the designer, but also a human being, and I think Instagram keeps my feet on the ground and shows that I’m not a designer in some tower.”
DID YOU EVER IMAGINE THAT YOUR PERSONAL ACCOUNT WOULD GET MORE THAN A MILLION FOLLOWERS?
”I never had a doubt about what I was doing, but I never did it on purpose. I’m an honest person on Instagram and I just see if people are going to like it. And they do. I’m pretty happy they want to be part of my life – it’s a really amazing compliment.”
DO YOU HAVE A MESSAGE FOR ALL YOUR FOLLOWERS AND THE #HMBALMAINATION?
”Dream. Keep believing. Four years ago, I was just trying to do the most beautiful clothes. Today, I’m trying to build my world, which is way more exciting. And I listen to myself more and feel that I’m growing up with each collection. It’s funny because they put me at Balmain, which is the most expensive brand, and I’m the most democratic designer. And [this collaboration], it’s going to be once in maybe a century that people will have this chance to get these couture things. It’s a piece of a dream I want to give to the world.”
Balmain x H&M includes clothes, shoes and accessories for women and men. The collection will be in select stores worldwide and online from 5 November.