Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing: Phresh Out the Runway
The designer is bringing a new attitude to fashion.
Olivier Rousteing is black, 28, and not above posting shirtless selfies on Instagram. As the creative director of Balmain, all this makes him something of a rarity: Racial diversity, youth, and flagrant -modernity are not characteristics commonly associated with venerable French fashion houses, much less with the designers at their helm. Yet Rousteing—who after three successful years on the job has made it clear that he is not a fashion footnote—is determined to change that. “My job is not just to design clothes but to also give a new vision to fashion,” he declares.
“Sometimes you forget that your passion can also be your work.”
That was not always his agenda. Rousteing was raised in Bordeaux, France, by adoptive white parents. “My father was a port manager, my mother an optician; but they were very modern,” he says. “They taught me to be open-minded and express myself.” He initially planned on becoming a lawyer, but, bored and restless after only two months studying law, he made his way to Rome to intern for Gianni Serra, a small couture house. “I had always loved fashion,” he explains, noting that his affection for black leather biker pants, which he sports everywhere—even with tails to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala—began in high school. “Sometimes you forget that your passion can also be your work.” At 18, Rousteing went to work for Roberto Cavalli, where he rose through the ranks from intern to right-hand man of Peter Dundas, who was Cavalli’s head designer when Rousteing arrived. He credits Dundas with teaching him about glamour—“Peter had designed costumes for the opera, so he has this culture of extravagance,” he says—as well as instilling in him a sense of humility. “We’re just making beautiful clothes,” says Rousteing, whose boyish charm makes him immediately likable. “There’s no need to be a torturer.”
“If I made a mistake, I wanted it to be my own.”
As happy as he was at Cavalli, Rousteing was drawn to Paris—and, in particular, to Balmain, where Christophe Decarnin’s crystal-encrusted designs were causing a worldwide frenzy, aptly referred to as Balmainia. “I loved what he was doing,” Rousteing says. “It was more my taste than Cavalli.” He sent his CV, was hired instantly, and spent more than two and a half years working beside Decarnin, until 2011, when Decarnin exited the house after rumors he’d had a nervous breakdown. “That was a stressful time,” Rousteing recalls. “Christophe left. Emmanuelle Alt [the editor in chief of Vogue Paris, who was then the house’s stylist] left, too. I was 25 and managing the whole studio.” The thought of taking over hadn’t even crossed his mind when in April of that year he received a call, while on vacation in Barcelona, from Balmain chairman Alain Hi-velin, who offered him the position. Knowing he had the support of the design team, Rousteing said yes, thus becoming one of the youngest talents to preside over an established Parisian fashion house since Yves Saint Laurent found himself, at age 21, the head designer at Christian Dior.
Forgoing the help of a stylist (“If I made a mistake, I wanted it to be my own,” he says), Rousteing pulled together his first collection, for resort 2012, in two short months, and with it set the tone for a more refined—albeit no less sex-fueled—Balmain. “I loved working with Christophe, but we exist in two different worlds,” Rousteing says. “He’s rock ’n’ roll; I’m hip-hop. He’s more street wear; I’m more couture. He’s into jeans; I prefer a tailored suit jacket and pants. We both like a girl to look sexy, but we express it in different ways.”
As a certified millennial, Rousteing is also resolutely forward-thinking. That, coupled with the confidence that comes from the support of megastars like Kim Kardashian and Rihanna, who are frequently photographed in his clothes, has allowed him to chart a course for the house that is more inclusive of different cultures and ethnicities. For spring 2014 he cast Rihanna, whom he describes as “strong, sexy, at times androgynous—the new Madonna,” as the face of the brand. For fall, he presented a polished hip-hop/safari mash-up that opened with the black model Jourdan Dunn. But it is perhaps the photographs seen here, featuring Rihanna, Naomi Campbell, and Iman, that best express his vision for Balmain. “These women are inspiring to so many different people,” he says. “Bringing them together represents the concept I’m working toward.”