Paris is history, Paris is the future”, were among comments Balmain’s creative director Olivier Rousteing posted on Instagram with a series of photos spanning several days after the 13 November terrorist attacks. He was one of the few fashion designers who expressed himself on social media in a spontaneous, emotional way.
Rousteing, 30, is a new kind of designer. He has 2 million followers on hispersonal Instagram account, where he posts pictures of his daily life and work. “It’s completely instinctive. I open the doors of my life to the greatest number, rather than opting to communicate just with the front row,” he says.
Yet when he started at Balmain, Rousteing seemed set on a more traditional career. He studied at Paris’s Esmod fashion school, then worked for Roberto Cavalli, moving to Balmain in 2009. Christophe Decarnin had just started overhauling the venerable establishment. Two years later, Decarnin left suddenly and Rousteing took over.
At 25, he became the second-youngest designer to head a French fashion house (Yves Saint Laurent was 21 when he took the helm at Dior). Initially, Rousteing stuck with his predecessor’s baroque, rock-star style, but soon started flirting with kitsch, adopting a mixture of Las Vegas, Rio carnival and Liberace.
But the real changes occurred off the catwalk. He made no secret of his friendship with the Kardashians, previously snubbed by the snootier fashion houses. Then, in 2014, he chose the singer Rihanna as the new face of Balmain. Neither a model nor a Hollywood actor, Rihanna symbolises the desire “to put colour into the Balmain identity, at every level”, Rousteing explains.
He is currently France’s only black fashion designer in a world largely dominated by white, middle-class talent. Rousteing often talks about being born an orphan, of being adopted and the racism he endured growing up in Bordeaux.
He particularly emphasises “the role of clothes as an affirmation of identity, a source of pride and celebration of difference”. He has campaigned for greater diversity on the catwalk. His collections brim over with Afro-American influences and references to the 1980s vogue dance culture, the early days of Michael Jackson and Prince. He adds touches from hip-hop and R&B, and African ornamental details with a luxurious, Parisian spin.
“Just him being there is a success: in France, just as in the United States, from one casting call or fashion magazine to the next, whiteness is presented as the ideal and the norm. Yet it bears no resemblance to the colourful world in which we live,” says Julee Wilson, senior fashion editor at Huffington Post.
The lack of any family network and his profile as a self-made man make sense to Americans, according to writer and educator Ernest White II. “He’s a generation-O [as in Obama] designer, a child of the meritocracy, a real French-style ‘Yes, you can’, who doesn’t forget where he comes from and is still proud of it,” he says of Rousteing, who sees himself as a “créateur engagé”, posing on the cover of men’s fashion magazine L’Officiel Hommes, and nude on cover of top gay journal Têtu.
“I don’t think any particular sphere is more elevated than another, each environment has something to say to the others,” Rousteing explains. He launched Balmain’s H&M collection last autumn, backed by a media campaign in which he appeared alongside personalities such as Kendall Jenner (Kim Kardashian’s sister) and Gigi Hadid.
Rousteing enjoys star status. In the carefree atmosphere not so long ago in Paris, fans camped overnight at H&M on the Champs Elysées, hoping to score a selfie with their idol. Many of the clothes sold out in just a few hours; they subsequently fetched a fortune online, along with coat-hangers, bags and other goodies. “He hangs out with women who are so diverse, but all of them fit into his world, whether you’re fashion-crazy or not,” says one fan.
The Balmain creative director’s media clout is particularly valuable at a time when other talented designers prefer to let their work speak for itself. But for Balmain’s chief executive, Emmanuel Diemoz, it is Rousteing’s independence that really makes him stand out.
“We don’t belong to anyone, so we don’t have a big firm’s publicity budget,” Diemoz says. “Maybe if we’d put ads in all the magazines things would have been different. Our need for an alternative form of communication has turned into a strength.”