Balmain's Olivier Rousteing is his own man

Balmain's Olivier Rousteingis not one to follow trends,writesDivia Harilela

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 October, 2012, 2:55pm

Luxury brand Balmain has always been controversial among editors. The brand rose to fame in the late 2000s with its in-your-face embellished jackets, extortionately priced ripped jeans and must-see fashion shows styled by the cool French Vogue editor Emmanuel Alt.

Customers loved it, but critics were on the fence. Then at the height of Balmainia, creative director Christophe Decarnin stepped down, leaving a big hole to fill. More than a few eyebrows were raised when the job went to Decarnin's second in command, the young, handsome and relatively unknown Olivier Rousteing.

"I was really scared about disappointing people that believed in me, like my team. But I knew things were going to be different, because it was under my control," says Rousteing, who was 25 when he landed the job.

One year later, he seems to have found his groove. Last week he visited Hong Kong for the first time to visit Balmain's first freestanding store here, in Harbour City, and to meet customers that include pop singer Sandy Lam Yik-lin and model Qiqi Yam.

Rousteing says he wanted to experience Asia in person.

"It's important to know Hong Kong, because we are hoping to open more boutiques, including one in Pacific Place next year. I wanted to come to see the culture," he says.

The city couldn't be more different than the Bordeaux region of France, where Rousteing was raised. He loved sketching as a young boy and enrolled at renowned fashion school ESMOD (L'Ecole Supérieure des arts et techniques de la mode).

At 17, he continued his education in Paris, where he was inspired by designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni Versace and Pierre Balmain. He soon landed an internship at a couture house in Rome, and three months later found himself working at Roberto Cavalli, under designer Peter Dundas.

"The first thing I learned was to be responsible. Then came the real fashion education - everything from the vocabulary, to the fabrics and the tricks. Mr Cavalli was very sweet and the company is an empire, so I was able to touch on everything. We were just outside of Florence, so we had access to big print machines, leathers and embroiderers," he says.

Balmain came onto the scene in 2009, when Rousteing was hired to work under Decarnin running the men's and women's studios. Although his personal aesthetic didn't match the rock 'n' roll vibe popularised by Decarnin, he found the experience inspiring. When he accepted Decarnin's job two years later, he knew he wanted to bring the house's style closer to his own.

"Before, I managed the studio and was translating what Decarnin had in his mind and producing what he wanted. Then I realised that it was my face that was appearing on the catwalk, so I knew I had to make the brand more of me.

"Initially, I wanted to move away from that rock 'n' roll vibe. Balmain has an amazing past - Christophe was part of it, but Pierre Balmain and Oscar de la Renta created a chic Parisian style that I gravitated towards. What I am trying to do is to bring the house back to this couture level. Tailoring is important, but I don't want to forget that it is a French luxury house.

"It's getting more chic, defined and sophisticated, while keeping the sexiness and glamour. It's less rock 'n' roll and more sexy couture."

For his debut spring-summer 2012 collection, Rousteing returned to the archives. Inspired by country and western stars during the golden years of Las Vegas in the 1960s, and bullfighters' costumes, he created bolero jackets, patchwork dresses, pyjama suits and gaucho skirts.

Then came this autumn's collection, which was inspired by Elizabeth Taylor and a Fabergé egg given to her by Richard Burton. Cue plenty of Russian ornamentation and Cossack styling, along with ornately designed high-collar velvet dresses. His favourite piece is a black-and-white raffia jumpsuit that combines couture with sportswear.

For spring-summer 2013 Rousteing looked to Miami and Cuba. "I love the idea of the American dream and I wanted to insert Latin power. While everyone is going minimal or dark, I wanted to keep it happy, fun and light. For me the connecting thread is couture. It's based on shape and tailoring. Every collection is a journey - not only around the world, but in time."

So far the new aesthetic has been popular with diehard fans, who appreciate Rousteing's softer take on the house's glamorous aesthetic.

Critics say Balmain is out of touch with fashion's obsession with minimalism, but this doesn't bother Rousteing. He is more concerned about carving the brand's identity than following trends.

"I think what is modern about fashion today is that everyone is creating their own identity. You don't have one trend that everyone follows. I don't think we are not modern because we are not making Céline. There is space for everything. The day Balmain becomes another identity is when I am no longer there," he says.

In addition to perfecting the ready-to-wear line, Rousteing has made accessories his priority.

This month sees the launch of Balmain's first handbag designed in collaboration with Aurelie Bidermann. It will debut at Balmain Paris and Barneys New York before becoming available in Hong Kong.

Another thing on the to-do list is lowering prices. During Decarnin's reign, Balmain was as famed for high prices as for its ostentatious clothes - something Rousteing is hoping to change.

"We work a lot on making prices lower. Now you can get a HK$40,000 dress, but also a sharp black jacket at a lower price. I want to offer something for everything," he says.