The studio soundtrack at Balmain these past few weeks has been David Bowie's "China Girl." There's the collection in a nutshell. "Asian fusion. East and West," Olivier Rousteing said at his presentation today.
The use of that is twofold. For one thing, riffing on non-Western modes of dress allowed Rousteing to completely change the Balmain silhouette. He made doing so one of his goals of the season, and to that end, created drop-crotch sarouel pants and side-fastening kimono tops; even the leather jackets, a Balmain best seller year-round, got looser and loucher. Buttons were mostly banished. His outerwear and even jackets now mostly wrap on the bias, fastened with judo belts and oversize, embroidered obis. Asian-inspired dragon beadwork put a glamorous spin on tuxedo jackets. The summa of handwork was a gilded jacket whose workmanship Rousteing compared to couture. It has analogues in the womenswear collection, but more and more hero products like these are making their way into menswear, thanks to demand from rock stars who come into Balmain's boutiques and request the women's versions in larger sizes to wear onstage. There's a shopper for whom flashy is the highest praise.
But there are plenty of customers besides rock stars, and the question of who Balmain's customer is and what he wants is one Rousteing wisely keeps asking. On his travels around the world in the employ of the brand, he's learned a few things. "When you go to Asia, it's the young, young guys who are buying Balmain," he said. There's another reason to try the Eastern theme. If you can snare the new customer, you can broaden the base, and an investment in Asia is an investment for the long term. Will it work? Questions like these don't have immediate answers. Lowering the prices on Balmain's most entry-level product, as the label has done this season, may not hurt. But for extra insurance, there happens to be a suit made in the Chinese color of good luck and prosperity: red.