Buro 24/7 Exclusive Interview: Olivier Rousteing
A revealing chat with the Balmain creative director
Olivier Rousteing is of a rare bread of fashion designers, and the youngest creative name since Yves Saint Laurent to take over an established Parisian fashion house. Such a break in tradition is unheard of (especially in France).
Born and raised in Bordeaux, in the south of France, Rousteing studied fashion at the ESMOD (I'Ecole Superieure Des Arts et Techniques de la Mode) in Paris. After graduating in 2003, he landed a job with Roberto Cavalli and moved to Italy where he worked with Cavalli for five years, establishing himself and working his way up to Head of Design for both the men's and women's collections. Rousteing moved back to Paris in 2009 to join Balmain as assistant to Christophe Decarnin, the designer credited with re-energising the house with his signature edgy style - and bringing the label back to profitability. At just 27-years old Rousteing is head of a luxe powerhouse – requiring confidence, knowledge and motivation.
When Buro 24/7 meets the designer at his atelier – or as calls it, his "universe" – not far from the Rue François Balmain boutique, we immediately feel the positive energy he projects – and two swift espresso shots later, he is ready to go...
Talk us through your atelier
You can really see all my moods and inspirations here, but it's not only about the clothes and the work, I also like to have my personal objects around me so I feel connected to myself all the time, like the Miami Vice DVDs and some letters from friends and family. What I like about it is that it's in central Paris, my office, the atelier and the shop are all very near each other so it's very convenient.
You joined Balmain when you were only 25 and then took the lead role soon after Christophe Decarnin's departure. How did you deal with that pressure?
I am a very independent person, I left my parents home in Bordeaux at the age of 18 and went to study fashion in Italy, and shortly after I was an intern at Cavalli. From there things moved really fast and I got a job at Balmain as an assistant to design under Decarnin, that was when I was 23. When they offered me the position I have now, I couldn't believe it, I thought they will give it to some big designer like Tom Ford for example but they really believed in me and in my vision and although it was a risk to take on someone so young they offered me the job.
The pressure can be scary but I come from a background where I had to fight for what I have, I am adopted and therefore have had to prove myself all my life, but I know I always get my way by working hard and fighting for it. It's important to remember that it's just clothes, and have your priorities straight in life, and I want to keep this spirit.
You have taken a contemporary approach with the brand, would you agree?
The first thing I did when I got the position was the decision to style the shows myself - it felt terribly old-fashioned to invite stylists or consultants to teach me how to make my clothes look good. I have my own language, which has its own aesthetics, which are transformed into everything we do in Balmain.
You actively use Twitter and Instagram. Do you think that social media has an impact on your life and on the fashion world as a whole?
Fashion seems like a closed world and through social media, I want to change the situation - I want to show that I am an ordinary person can do a selfie after a night of partying and say "I'm tired" or photograph of the chicken nuggets I had for lunch.
Many great designers of the older generations have lost their sense of humanity under the pressure of fashion, so it seems to me that social media allows you to stay on the ground and unite you with people. Although I have quite a luxurious lifestyle, I want people to not forget that I am also a real person.
You featured Rihanna in your latest campaign and called her a "new icon". Is she a refection of your client, too?
Rihanna is my girlfriend and she really also has a special Balmain spirit - she knows what she is, she's strong, but modest, she can wear pyjamas and look red carpet worthy. She has the right attitude to fashion. And the idea of an advertising campaign originated with me - I wrote her a message "Will you make my dream come true??" And she agreed! Working with her was so much fun that I would not even call it work. It was just a joyous day in New York with loud music and good food in good company. She was trying on things, just great fun.
What is your future plan for Balmain?
Although Balmain is a traditional French house, I still want to maintain it at an international level. I always find inspiration from different sources and in different places - for example, I dedicated Pre-Fall 14 to the idea of safari. I like to mix different cultures for women, for whom I create clothes. I can go from being inspired by Faberge eggs to the jungle - I change themes and inspirations each season, but always speak the language of Balmain.
Do you think a woman can look luxurious, without spending a fortune?
Of course, when I'm working on a collection, I sell a fairy tale - but it's still got to be a reality tale too. Women are not obliged to buy a dress for $25,000, she can go to one of our stores and buy cute blazer that can be worn for several years. I make clothes for all women - I also see a lot of Balmain copies, which I guess is also a good way to achieve the classic image of Balmain, without spending a lot of money.
So you don't mind the High Street copying your work?
Absolutely not, everyone copies now, and I am proud that my clothes inspire others - it means that Balmain is becoming a trendsetter. And I'm always glad to see young people who have mixed it with other things in their own special, vivid way. For example, my colleague once came to work in a shirt with black and white crystals on it, from H&M or Zara, it was an exact replica of a piece in my 'brilliant' collection. I thought it was funny, and I liked the colour combination. I think fashion should become more popular, more massive fad - like a movie or music.
Tell us about the team at Balmain
I love my job, because I work with great people, and although our house is very traditional, the team I have in place is very young. We spend a lot of time as a family, and for me it is important to keep a very special atmosphere. Thanks to our team, I don't ever feel like I work hard all day long, or get exhausted. We sit in the studio late and listen - and dance - to loud music. I have been with these people since I came here to work as an assistant. I was lucky: it is very important to enjoy your work.