BY ANTOINE LECLERC-MOUGNE
Since he took over the head spot of the distinguished Balmain house, Olivier Rousteing has made a name for himself in only two years. He’s also carried the torch for the French savoir-faire the brand along with a twist of modernism brought in by Christophe Decarnin.
It’s a warm sunny afternoon in Paris. It’s a Thursday. Septeber 29th, 2011. The sun shines bright almost as if the summer wanted to go overtime. In the Opera neighborhood in a private room in the elegant Intercontinental Le Grand Hôtel, a fashion crowd waits impatiently for the Balmain show to begin while fanning themselves with the invitation card that got them in the door. This is the first show for a collection made by the young and talented Olivier Rousteing. Earlier in the year, he replaced Christophe Decarnin as head of design. In July he received praise for a cruise collection. In 2006 the fashion house Balmain had high hopes for Christophe Decarnin when they brought him in. Everyone him expected to bolster a company that was starting to lose speed. In a just a few seasons, Decarnin managed the amazing task of giving Balmain its identity back from the earlier golden Oscar de La Renta era of the 90’s. He even increased sales five fold. But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. In March 2011, Decarnin, who had been sent to hospital after a nervous breakdown, wasn’t there to greet the audience at the end of the Fall-Winter 2011 show. When the fashion house decided to dismiss Decarnin, it was Olivier’s time. He was just a stylist assistant of the atelier at the time. It was an incredible opportunity to make his entrance in the fashion arena having full control of the production of both men’s and women’s ready-to-wear lines – an opportunity almost unheard of.
3pm. At the Intercontinental Le Grand Hôtel, the show is about to begin. « Décroisez les jambes! (« French for uncross your legs! »). The photographers shout at the front row guests to make room. Lights dim and the music play’s while models start stepping out on the runway. In the first seconds it was obvious to everyone in attendance. Olivier Rousteing was the right choice to take the house over. His first collection was a subtle mix of iconic Balmain cuts and chic rock n’roll Decarnin influences with his own touch of a classy and sober bourgeois Parisian style. Without a word, an undeniable success was confirmed with a roaring applause. Until that moment, many would have never bet on Olivier Rousteing. Many thought he was way too young and inexperienced to handle such a big name. At just 27 years old, he is still today the youngest head designer among the great French fashion brands. But Olivier proved them all wrong thanks to his brazen precociousness.
Perhaps what is even more striking about him is that he is also the first and only mixed-race black man to run an old French company in this not- so- diverse environment. Somehow, Olivier stands unintentionally for the young new generation as the torch-bearer for a more open-minded and modern industry. That’s also perhaps why he draws so much attention.
Born in 1986, Olivier was adopted and raised in Bordeaux, a region in the south of France internationally famous for a rich history and amazing wine. As a kid, he loved sketching. In 2003, he went to Paris to study fashion at Ecole Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode (« ESMOD »). After that, he worked five years for Roberto Cavalli in Rome before getting picked up by Balmain in 2009. In Italy, he was taught by Peter Dundas (Cavalli’s Designer) about every aspect of fashion (vocabulary, fabrics, techniques and the tricks). Let’s just say by the time he arrived at Balmain’s atelier as a simple designer, he had seen it all, and was ready to show the world his skills. When he was named to replace Decarnin, Olivier Rousteing knew exactly what he wanted to do. Since then, he has brought the house back to a haute couture level and tailoring, influenced by years of going through the archives of what the quintessential French luxury house is supposed to look like. He’s also keeping the brand chic while infusing a rock n’roll style created by De la Renta and Decarnin, while also including gold fabrics like the denim used by Pierre Balmain in that time. He’s bringing a more sophisticated and defined attention to detail to the outfits, like the original creator would do. The coming spring-summer 2014 collection is the perfect example. Rousteing made silhouettes appear more casual and sporty without forgetting to put a finishing touch of deluxe treatment in them with a gold chain and crystals.
For Olivier Rousteing, every collection is a journey. And it’s this journey that inspires him. Traveling all around the world for events and work is one his favorite things to do. That is how he created the all imagery of the fall-winter 2012 collection. Back then coming from a trip in New York where he had seen the Elizabeth Taylor exhibition, he was amazed by the Fabergé egg that Richard Burton gave as a gift to the actress. Another example is when he decided to include Latin inspirations in his spring-summer 2013 collection after being traveling to Miami and Cuba. Thankfully, now we are all taking this journey with Olivier Rousteing. Wherever it leads, we’re looking forward to where it takes us next.