Fashion’s Disrupter, Olivier Rousteing of Balmain


When Olivier Rousteing received a fashion-industry award in New York last month, the designer didn’t accept the award alone. Instead, he took the stage surrounded by models and other members of his “Balmain Army.”

Such unorthodox gestures are typical of the 33-year-old Mr. Rousteing, a playful disrupter of luxury fashion’s tradition and snobbery. Since becoming creative director of French house Balmain in 2011, he has favored a populist ethos rather than the elitist one that is in the DNA of many high-end labels.

Mr. Rousteing, (pronounced roo-STAHH), championed hip-hop music and performers like Rihanna and reality-TV fixture Kim Kardashian before other designers did. He also embraced racial diversity at a time when many luxury brands were ignoring the issue.

Mr. Rousteing, the first black creative director of a big luxury label in many years, says black designers at last are getting the recognition they merit.

Mr. Rousteing, the first black creative director of a big luxury label in many years, says black designers at last are getting the recognition they merit.


Photo:

Laura Stevens for The Wall Street Journal

Adopted from an orphanage by a white couple in Bordeaux when he was five months, Mr. Rousteing believes he is of mixed race and considers himself black. “All my life people might just say you’re not black and you’re not white, but I was black enough to be called a black designer because of the lack of diversity in fashion,” said Mr. Rousteing, who is shooting a documentary about his life in which he tries to trace his origins. His Balmain appointment made him the first black creative director of a big luxury label in many years and the youngest creative director of a major fashion house since Yves Saint Laurent.

When he started Instagramming in 2012, most luxury brands and designers were still controlling their images tightly to preserve a certain mystique. “I remember people were like, ‘You cannot show so much about yourself,’ ” he said. “They were asking me to be a bit snobbish and I was like, ‘This is not right. This is now, what is happening today.’ ” Mr. Rousteing’s 5 million followers gobble up a stream of selfies and other glimpses of his life, such as outfitting Beyoncé for Coachella or attending the Met Gala. “I think this was my own way to say I’m not snobbish,” he said.

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His flashy, unapologetically sexy designs feature “a lot of bling and a lot of shine,” he said, their crisp tailoring conveying confident authority. “Balmainiacs” range from 23-year-old model Kendall Jenner to her mother Kris and France’s first lady Brigitte Macron. Mr. Rousteing spoke to the Journal recently while in New York. Edited excerpts:

Can luxury designer brands no longer afford to be snobbish or aloof?

I think they are scared to not be cool…I think the “trend” today is trying to not be snobbish. It’s funny to see that because the world of fashion will change and the people that will actually have successes are the people who are sticking to who they are. This is because right now you can recognize a brand that is trying to copy another and you can recognize a brand that actually sticks to who it is and really what it believes in.

You set out to make fashion less snobbish and exclusive. But doesn’t it need to be exclusive?

I think fashion needs to be exclusive, but exclusive doesn’t mean not being inclusive. Fashion still needs to be a dream world, something that you kind of look up to…But it has to be more inclusive, because the new generation…needs to identify themselves. My work and my vision are about saying to the next generation: “I will make sure that you can identify yourself into your dreams.”

Who Is He?

  • Name: Olivier Rousteing
  • What He Does: Fashion designer, creative director of Balmain
  • How He Got There: Dropped out of fashion school in Paris, moved to Italy and at the age of 19, landed a job at Roberto Cavalli. He became a designer for the label’s men’s and women’s ready-to-wear collections, helping put him on fashion’s radar.
  • His Big Break: In 2011, after a year and a half designing at Balmain in Paris under creative director Christophe Decarnin, the 25-year-old Mr. Rousteing was promoted to creative director after Mr. Decarnin’s abrupt departure. He became the youngest creative director of a big fashion house since Yves Saint Laurent, and the first black creative director at a major luxury fashion label in many years.
  • His Obsession: Music. Michael Jackson is a favorite. His Spring 2019 men’s show in June was a homage to the King of Pop.

Do fashion gatekeepers still exist?

We are living in a world where the consumers are stronger than the reviewers. Everybody has his own aesthetic, has his own taste, and no one is going to tell you what is beautiful or what is not beautiful, what is cool or what is not cool.

Where we are with diversity in the fashion industry?

Right now a lot of people talk about diversity, which makes me really proud because that was a fight I had about eight years ago when I started at Balmain. And I can tell you that that word diversity was not a trend word. A lot of people were saying the way that I was so inclusive was kind of cheapening the fashion world…I see some people today talking about inclusivity that were really actually exclusive three years ago! We have to be careful and not just say diversity’s cool. Because it’s not about being trendy, it’s about pushing the world to go for a vision and an acceptance of what is the world today.

Why do you think there aren’t more successful black designers?

There have always been incredible black designers. But I think before they were not recognized. The difference is that right now, finally, we can recognize them.

At Balmain’s most recent fashion show, why did you incorporate virtual-reality technology?

I wanted to be more inclusive. It was really important to open the fashion shows to a bigger audience.

By not just livestreaming your show?

It’s the next step. Because the livestream is great but the VR with Oculus (a maker of virtual-reality headsets) is like you’re sitting at the show…My goal will be in a few years to make sure that the show can be seen by millions and millions of people that feel like they are sitting there.

You have praised Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld as “the best fashion inspiration in life.” Any others at heritage fashion houses with his gift for courting millennials and not alienating older customers?

No. For me, Karl is the only one that has understood everything about fashion. He had a really old French house and made it really cool and still really relevant. He’s really close to pop culture and at the same time has the old tradition of France. And it’s not about putting sneakers on the runway.

What is the fashion industry’s biggest challenge?

I feel like this is a transition. Everybody’s going to go back to quality. To luxury. To creativity. The biggest challenge for the fashion industry is defining the codes of what is fashion. Who will remain in the fashion business will be people that actually embrace the new world, and who won’t is people that will never understand. Fashion houses, all of them, have codes. But now is the time for defining the new codes and pushing the limits of precedent and pushing the limits of a lot of people that might be like, “Oh, we never do that at the house.” But maybe it’s time for you to do it.

Mr. Rousteing accepted a fashion-industry award last month in New York amid members of his ‘Balmain Army.’

Mr. Rousteing accepted a fashion-industry award last month in New York amid members of his ‘Balmain Army.’


Photo:

Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan

Write to Ray A. Smith at ray.smith@wsj.com





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