Balmain Creative Director Olivier Rousteing joined Fashion@Brown for a virtual Fashion Week conversation Sunday afternoon. The discussion, which covered topics ranging from Rousteing’s career trajectory to the future of fashion, highlighted the brand’s simultaneously forward-thinking creative identity and historical legacy.
Rousteing’s career began in Italy as a designer for Roberto Cavalli, where he eventually was promoted to creative director of the women’s ready-to-wear collection. In 2009, he joined Balmain’s in-house design team, and by 2011, at the age of 25, Rousteing replaced Christophe Decarnin as the fashion house’s creative director. Rousteing has dressed people from the first lady of France Brigitte Macron to Kylie Jenner to, most recently, singer Lizzo at the Grammy Awards Sunday night.
After an introduction from Fashion@Brown President Sasha Pinto ’21, Rousteing was interviewed by Lynn Hlaing ’21, the design head and runway show production director for Fashion@Brown, and Rhode Island School of Design senior Kasia Hope, another design team director.
Hlaing began the conversation by asking Rousteing about his Mar. 7 fashion show for his Fall 2021 collection. The show was unique on multiple planes due to the simultaneous limitation and latitude offered by a virtual format. Firstly, rather than being a mere livestream, the runway show was filmed like a movie. But this runway film was anything but ordinary. Shot in a hangar at Charles de Gaulle Airport with an Air France 777 in the background, the show centered around elements of travel — a nod to the postwar travels of Balmain founder Pierre Balmain in 1947.
When discussing the show, Rousteing noted that typically, when he has a show, he just relies on himself. But, because of the cinematic element of this year’s show, he had to put some trust in a film team, which was an unusual sensation.
“Usually when you do a normal fashion show, a normal catwalk, you own the show,” he said. “When you give your collection to someone, the director of the movie, you know they can twist your collection in a different way. You need to make sure you share the same vision.”
Rousteing’s creative vision is what has defined his professional success for the past decade. In the 10 years since Rousteing became Balmain’s creative director, he changed the company's direction to focus on a younger age group and a more economically-diverse consumer market by partnering with H&M. Rousteing attributes Balmain’s move toward greater affordability — making luxury more accessible to a general audience — as one of his proudest accomplishments.
“Sometimes what is frustrating for designers is when you cannot see so many people dressed in your clothes and accessories,” he said. “When I saw so many people loving the Balmain universe I was really proud.”
He shared that some of his other accomplishments include forming his “Balmain Army” — a group of forward-thinking public figures who embody Balmain’s aura of confidence, including Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé and Rihanna — and that as a person of color, he has been able to diversify the fashion world.
“I pushed so much diversity in fashion at a time where there was really a lack of diversity,” Rousteing said. “I think I went beyond my clothes in trying to express something beyond my fashion, which was a point of view, a vision of the world, more than the clothes.”
Balmain was founded by Pierre Balmain in 1945 and comes with a rich history, with former directors including the renowned Herve Pierre and Oscar de la Renta. As the youngest creative director in the brand’s history, Rousteing found it challenging to execute his own visions while still remaining faithful to the brand’s tradition.
Still, he has found some similarities with his predecessors. Pierre Balmain used to dress powerful women such as Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot, which Rousteing likened to his Balmain Army.
“My Balmain Army, these incredible women and men that are more than just people that I love and that I dress, but people that (started) a revolution in fashion, from Beyoncé to Rihanna to Kim (Kardashian West) and Kanye” West, he said.
Rousteing says his “Army” is composed of figures that have “so much to say to this world.” When he is sketching a design for a garment, he thinks about what message the look conveys about the wearer and about Balmain as a brand. He wants those who wear Balmain to feel powerful and strong.
One of the people he dresses, Brazillian soccer player Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, is the kind of person Rousteing embraces. “When Neymar came onto the scene as a soccer player, it was a new way of seeing a man that was opening more with his social media — a different kind of vision of what could be a soccer player,” he said.
The embrace of social media has been at the forefront of Rousteing’s push against the boundaries of the traditional fashion world. When he arrived at the fashion house, Rousteing wanted to make sure teenagers “knew the name of Balmain and remembered Balmain.” In order to do this, he has shown his collections on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.
“I talk to another kind of generation, not only from a business point of view, but also as the vision of the brand that doesn’t talk to only 40 or 50-year-old people, but 15-year-old people. I will keep doing that,” Rousteing said.
Rousteing believes that due to the pandemic, more fashion houses have embraced and noticed the future of fashion on social media.
“The pandemic helped fashion to be more open and to understand … the world of inclusivity,” he said. “The moment you don’t sell magazines, the moment you start to build another kind of community on social media, you start to understand that you build a community with different people that you are not really expecting.”
The event later opened up to audience questions, including one from a student who asked Rousteing about one of the most important things he has learned throughout his career.
“My first two years at Balmain, I tried to be the perfect designer that pleased the fashion crowds. After the second year, I tried to become myself, sometimes displeasing people,” Rousteing said. “When I wanted diverse casting, when I wanted to push my own ideas, I had so many people from fashion telling me, ‘it’s not right’ … but I said, this is me.”
In closing out the discussion, Rousteing shared his opinion on the future of fashion.
“Fashion will exist because it will be close to music, it will be close to movies, it will be close to art. Fashion cannot survive just because we talk about fashion,” he said. “This is what will be the future of fashion — being connected to bigger platforms.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Lynn Hlaing ’21. The Herald regrets the error.
Rebecca Carcieri is an arts & culture editor. She is a senior from Warwick, Rhode Island studying political science.