More Flash Than Trash:
Olivier Rousteing At Balmain
After creating, with stylist Emmanuelle Alt, the phenomenon of Balmainia, former creative director Christophe Decarnin abruptly departed from the house he’d brought back to relevance, citing only medical concerns. As the press buzzed about the escalating pressures of the industry (in the wake not only of Decarnin’s departure but of Galliano’s anti-Semitic outburst and McQueen’s suicide), the label appointed an impossibly young, all but untested designer to take his place: The then-25-year-old Frenchman Olivier Rousteing, who’d worked under Decarnin at the height of Balmain’s moment.
Rousteing, a veteran of Roberto Cavalli under Peter Dundas and Balmain under Decarnin, presented his first collection for Resort 2011 and followed it up with a well-received first show for Spring that kept the glitz and glamour but lost some of the rock ‘n’ roll trashiness that had given previous collections their edge. Critics and buyers—even those who had been Decarnin’s boosters—responded. On a recent trip to New York, Rousteing spoke with Style.com about his vision for the house, the high pressure of the industry, and why you won’t see any shredded T-shirts on his watch.
You joined Balmain in 2009, at a time when there was so much excitement around the label—Balmainia, as it were. What was that like?
I went there when it was Balmainia…I understood when I came to the house that it was a really small house with a really big name. But there wasn’t all the structure. It was super-interesting—there was not a lot of people. What is nice at Balmain is not only this part, the Balmainia, but even before; you have access to amazing archives. That was a good thing too with this house. It’s a really French house; it [has] old history.
Is that what you still look back to for your own collections?
When I arrived, I loved the rock ‘n’ roll sex appeal that was in the house, [and] I loved to work with Christophe, obviously. But what I learned from this house is that there is a real DNA, something from the past that I want to bring back. I want to bring the couture feeling that I tried to during the summer [for Spring 2011].
To temper the rock ‘n’ roll with something a little more classic.
I think “classic” is the right word. I want to go to something more timeless. Something that goes for the future. What I love from the old French house, it’s not seasonal. It’s something that stays. That’s my goal for Balmain. Keeping the sexiness but a bit dressier. For a woman who’s more chic, [to] expand from the woman who was before.
There was obviously an enormous amount of pressure on Christophe Decarnin, as there is on all major designers today. Is that something that concerns you?
I believe a lot in the place where I work. I love the brand. The people that work with me are my friends. Already that creates a really good structure, a good system. When Christophe [was] gone, for sure, it was hard for us, but I love [for] the brand to keep going. What I think is nice now is that I can give myself inside the house now, more than before. There were many things I liked with Christophe, and many things that were not me. Now it’s completely me.
Do you stay in contact with him?
I try. Sometimes it’s hard because I work a lot and he is not always…he’s busy. But he’s someone I really, really like. It’s thanks to him that I’m here. Everyone that I’ve met in my past, I always love and keep in my heart. I’m really grateful for everything that they’ve given me. Even the people that are harder. At the end, you learn a lot from them. That’s what I want to keep, all the positive energy they give to me.
Tell me about the first collection.
I did what I liked. I wanted to keep all the archives that I’ve said, to show the old Balmain, the couture feeling. Keeping the glamour…I really love glamour. I wanted, when people see the show, [for them] to feel happy. That’s what I like: happiness. It’s not torture. It’s a happy show, though there’s a lot of work behind [it]. People have to have fun with the clothes. It’s really important for me that people enjoy it, smile.
Before it felt a little angrier, a little more aggressive.
There were some parts that were not me at all. What I want to keep for Balmain is the other side: the happiness of the girls when they are in the show. The models enjoy to be in the clothes. I want to get rid of all the holes and trashy and dirty…that was not really my style. It’s something that I respect because I was in the house before, but it is not my style. My style you saw in the last collection: more chic, classier, more honest to the brand.
Personally, I don’t want holes in my luxury T-shirt.
Me too. I like when the things are used, they have a soul. When you want a soul and a vintage used feeling, you can put holes and safety pins and stuff, make it dirty, put fire—that will be used. But me, it’s not my type. My style is more used, but in another way. I like clothes when you have nostalgia, when you have a feeling of already-worn. That’s my point of view. You saw it in the last show. All the flowers were already used, [you saw] a real effect of the time on it. But you didn’t feel at the end there were holes, that it was dirty.
Tell me about the studio. I understand you have a very young team.
I tried, honestly, to keep everyone from the studio. I love everyone where I work; they all have Balmain in their heart. After [Decarnin left], many went away, [to have] new experiences, [and] I hired new people to add new energy, too. From different countries. If you come into the office, you will see, there are people from everywhere. Puerto Rico, Denmark, New York, London, French people, German…it’s a mix of cultures. I like to mix. I’m mixed [race], so…
Yes—and speaking of that, you’re one of the only designers of color at a major French house. Is it something that impacts you?
No. For me, what’s important is to show my work and what I am about to do. I’m really proud for my parents, for the education they gave to me. About the color—I don’t see my color. It’s fine. I’m happy with what I am.
If we have to speak about it, if I have to be honest, why I’m really proud is because I’m adopted. I don’t know my real parents, my biological parents. More than the color, what I think is important for me is to show that, if you don’t have a good start, you can still fight for what you love. My parents are white; I am black, or mixed. I don’t know where I’m from. But what they teach me is this, too: It’s [to] love. I love everyone.