AHEAD OF HIS SECOND COUTURE COLLECTION FOR THE HOUSE OF BALMAIN, CREATIVE DIRECTOR OLIVIER ROUSTEING DISCUSSES HIS EMOTIONAL JOURNEY OF SELF-DISCOVERY THAT LED HIM TO CREATE HIS MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF WORK YET
After almost a decade at the helm of Balmain, 2019 is proving to be something of an exceptional year for Olivier Rousteing. The 33-year-old designer kicked off the year showing his first couture collection for the historic French fashion house in January – 16 years after Balmain’s then creative director, Oscar de la Renta, revealed his final couture collection in 2002. Followed by the launch of Balmain’s luxurious 630-square metre flagship boutique on Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris in February; a new Balmian app; a trip to the Middle East to judge an inaugural Arab fashion award in March, and continued work on his long-awaited documentary, which airs in September, it’s safe to say Olivier is keeping the iconic French label at the top of the global fashion news agenda with every move he makes.
Speaking to him after his trip to the region in April, while one would assume the designer may be taking time off after such a hectic few weeks, and ahead of his second Haute Couture Show this summer, MOJEH’s chat with Olivier catches him midway through producing yet another collection. “I’m just working on my next resort line for men and women,” he tells us over the phone from his Paris atelier. “What I’m sketching right now is all about freedom: escaping and trying to find yourself. About freedom of speech regarding who you want to be, freedom of love, of discovering who you are. Freedom to think what you want. Enjoying a life of true freedom for all men and women.”
Freedom is a subject especially close to the designer’s heart, after what has been a particularly introspective and insightful 18 months. Followed virtually everywhere he went by a documentary film crew, as Olivier set about discovering the truth behind his background – he was adopted at the age of one and brought up in the French city of Bordeaux – the designer also undertook one of the most significant projects of his career – reviving Balmain’s legendary couture collection. “You know, for me it was really important to bring back couture, because it’s part of the DNA of the house,” Olivier explained. “The house was built in 1945 by Pierre Balmain, and I think the moment I opened the new flagship on Rue Saint-Honoré, it was a huge statement for us. I wanted the world to remember that Balmain was known for its couture from the very beginning, and so I wanted to make sure I would bring back the tradition of the brand, but do that in a modern way.”
Hosting Olivier’s debut Balmain couture show in the new Paris boutique just days before its grand opening, fashion’s elite were treated to a typically spectacular display of the designer’s already couture-standard work, amped up to an even greater degree. With pearls a central focus, appearing as giant Balmain-emblazoned orbs encircling wrists, bulbous moulded leather skirts and magnificent minaudière, hundreds of thousands of tiny pearls and crystals were applied in lavish quantities to lattices of ornamentation on suits, gowns, denims and netted headpieces. From iridescent creams and pastel pinks, blues and greens with flashes of silver, a dreamy, underwater world of shell-like pleating, coral reef textures and voluminous silhouettes played opposite beautifully- structured and minimalist tailoring, a striking contrast to the fantastical frivolity of the huge gowns that floated down the runway.
“Monsieur Balmain always loved pearls, he always loved tailoring, so there wasn’t a specific collection that I referenced. Everything you saw on the couture catwalk comes from the ideas of Pierre Balmain,” explains Olivier on the inspiration for his debut couture line. “There are some pieces that are really embroidered, and there are others that are super-sleek and minimal. Because Monsieur Balmain’s work was created in a post-war era, the focus of his tailoring was to make women feel strong and empowered, after such a brutal time of pain and hardship. But at the same time, he was known for his exceptional craftsmanship. I wanted to make a collection that would really show off the expertise of the house, with these inspirational and creative pieces, and at the same time highlight the power of Balmain tailoring.”
With such high standards to meet, and the exacting eyes of the fashion world ready to scrutinise Olivier’s version of Monsieur Balmain’s vision, did he feel under pressure to create the long-awaited return to couture? “No! Not at all, in any way!”
Olivier assures us. “When I create couture, I do not feel pressure, because it’s a laboratory of thinking: it’s a laboratory of shapes. It’s not about reviews or critiques, it’s about feeling what you want to say, and translating that feeling into your designs. There is no point in trying to be trendy. There is no point in following the hype. Couture is about being timeless. Nobody can judge you on being timeless except yourself, and it’s up to the designer to create a collection that is going to be remembered in the future – no matter what other people say about it, or think about it at the time.”
Admitting that the only pressure he felt was to provide his Balmain Army – the devoted fans who have championed his work since his arrival at the house, and includes the likes of Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, and the entire Kardashian-Jenner-West clan, as well as Michelle Obama – with pieces they would want to wear, the designer believes he fulfilled the promise he made to himself when he first started to sketch. “I have so many women that I love, who asked for couture for red carpets and events, so it was important for me to do it,” he says. “And so, when I saw my girls wearing my pieces on my runway in our beautiful new home on Rue Saint-Honoré, I was really happy and proud, because I knew I’d made something iconic.”
Citing his favourite piece of the collection as the show’s opening look – a structured, pleated white gown with a dramatic split and signature structured shoulder, it would seem Olivier’s hope of creating pieces that his beloved clientele would want to wear has been realised: Beyoncé has worn an array of his Balmain couture pieces since their runway reveal in January, including Olivier’s favourite white gown when she picked up her NAACP Image Award for Entertainer of the Year in March, while Katy Perry, Juliette Binoche and Kendall Jenner are amongst other A-list fans who have showcased the designer’s dramatic pieces on the red carpet.
As far as the logistics of fitting a couture collection into his already-packed professional schedule is concerned, Olivier doesn’t consider it to be problematic. “I don’t ever think about it as a matter of time, more a matter of energy,” he explains. “It’s energy you take from the challenge, and the energy of actually creating that drives you forward. So I never feel pressure about creating any collections. Conversely, I always feel good about doing it, because you have that dynamic power that helps you to create, create, create. I was so excited to be able to produce my first couture collection – nothing could stop me wanting to get it ready.”
And it was that level of energy and belief in his own creative ability that Olivier was keen to instil in the young designers he met in his role as a judge for an inaugural Arab fashion talent award, held in March. “What I found really interesting was the amount of young talent from such diverse backgrounds, with so many strong points of view. Listening to their stories; their design ethos, their morals; their beliefs and what they fight for – it was inspiring,” he recalls. “All of the finalists were very focused on tradition, but how to reimagine that history in a modern way, and their focus point was to bring their heritage and culture alive for 2019. And this is what I love in fashion, because I’m the same. I love thinking of traditional forms and how I can make them modern, in my own way.” Hugely impressed by the variety of talent and ability on display at the first competition of its kind in the region, Olivier revealed that the experience took him back to his early days as a young designer trying to break into the industry.
“A lot of the work I saw was absolutely beautiful, with craftsmanship that was truly exquisite. Some designers were stronger on prints, others were stronger on accessories – it was a great mix of different talents, and I really enjoyed being part of it,” he says, going on to explain the competition’s most important message. “What was important for me to explain to the designers taking part was that no matter if they won or not, they must never, ever give up on their dream. Because fashion is a beautiful world, but it can be really cruel. You have to focus, and don’t let anyone push you down. Keep going, no matter if you win or lose. And even if you do win, don’t think that you’re right already. Because fashion is a non-stop question. That is the beauty of fashion.”
Imparting his experience and wisdom not only as a fashion designer, but also as someone who has recently gone through a massive learning process of his own via the filming of his forthcoming documentary, Olivier says the experience was both exhausting and therapeutic. Mixing the personal with the professional, from his roots growing up with his adoptive parents in France, to his designer success story – including “some of the struggles I encountered in getting to where I am, the work that has gone into it and the critiques” – he explains that he decided to make the documentary, not only for his own peace of mind, but because he felt his life was sometimes considered by others as “a fashion paradox”, where he felt misunderstood. “After spending 30 years of my life not knowing the origin of my colour, which has always been a question mark, I simply didn’t know the reason why my biological parents left me. There were all these questions that I grew up with that troubled me, and finding the answers was a way to close a chapter, and open a new one.”
While Olivier doesn’t consider sharing such a personal and emotional insight into his life particularly brave, he chose to film his journey of self-discovery as a way to help others who face a similar situation. “It was a year-and-a-half of filming. The documentary is about Balmain, my own life, my personal life, looking for my origins and understanding where I come from. It was really personal and emotional for me, and I wanted to share it with the world to give a message to people who also might not know where they come from; to show that there is always a way to find the place you want to go.” Admitting there were times he wanted to stop filming almost on a daily basis, his ultimate focus never wavered. “Every time I discovered something, I wondered if I was strong enough to keep going. But I had to keep doing it because I wanted to learn about myself, and give a message to the world: don’t give up. Even when it’s bad, just don’t give up, because one answer is never enough to understand the second answer. So keep doing it. Keep going, keep going,” he revealed.
Due to be released during Paris Fashion Week in September, Olivier is aware that some of the revelations included in the film may surprise people – both those closest to him, and observers from afar. “I was surprised at much of it myself. Because we make opinions of people now through social media, or interviews, or whatever, but these views are made through a filter. When you do something like this, you show people who you really and truly are, and there is no filter,” he tells us. “People expect me to be the leader of the Balmain Army, with all the glamour and the French tradition, which of course I am. But with the film, you see both sides: the leader of Balmain, as well as the human being, who’s just looking to find who he is.”