Olivier the conqueror
VOGUE India|November 2021
Since taking over Balmain at the age of 25, Olivier Rousteing has transformed it into a revolutionary force in French fashion. Nathan Heller meets the designer set to shake up the world
Nathan Heller

Olivier Rousteing is sitting in a make-shift greenroom, talking with a group of business founders trying to reimagine the future of France. He is dressed, as usual, in black: black coat, black trousers, and, on his feet, clogs like black lapdogs, covered with faux fur, his fingers shielded in long golden rings. When an attendant leads him to the stage wing, he leans against the wall and scrolls through Instagram. Rousteing became creative director of Balmain in 2011, at age 25, and since then has consolidated the house’s power by courting the gaze of an extremely online demographic.

“We might stay a bit afterward,” he murmurs to a colleague—he anticipates a swarm of attention. The conference where Rousteing is speaking is not about fashion; it is called Fighters Day, and it’s a gathering of French entrepreneurs in the American mould: techies, start-up doyens, and ‘self-made’ men and women of the kind who, until recently, scarcely existed in the French imagination. On-stage, in French, Rousteing speaks about his decision to set off on his own at 18. “I left my fashion school after six months,” he says. “I fought because I had no school or background behind me, just determination and desire. I came to Paris, and it’s now 10 years since I’ve been creative director at Balmain.” He adds, softly, “It’s always a battle against yourself.”

A Black man raised in Bordeaux by two middle-class white parents, he is the highest-ranking person of colour at the old Parisian houses. The panel is in Station F, a former freight centre converted into a sleek start-up campus off Paris's techie Quai d’Austerlitz. The audience is young, diverse and multitalented, but Rousteing brings something distinct: an understanding of the way taste, creativity and business intersect.

“For me it’s been very important to use clothes to talk about subjects such as diversity and ‘pop’—pop culture, population,” he says. “When I started my Instagram in 2013, I had a meeting with my president, who asked, ‘What are you doing? Luxury on Instagram is impossible. It’s cheap.’”

Since Rousteing’s wild ascent began, he has understood himself as an avatar of new paths. But recently, he’ll tell me later, he has wondered whether something has been lost in the gloss and glamour of ambition he has cultivated, and he’s started breaking barriers of a more personal kind.

The keystone of this new effort, for Rousteing, has been the documentary Wonder Boy, by the filmmaker Anissa Bonnefont, which focuses on Rousteing’s fraught, heartbreaking efforts to learn the story of his birth parents. When it came out on Netflix in June, it was avidly watched in France, a success that local observers found unsurprising.

“Olivier understood very early on that social media and the digital sphere were inherent to the future of fashion,” Pierre A. M’Pelé, himself a leader among the generation of French fashion journalists to reach prominence through online followings, recently said. “It wasn’t just about shopping online, but communicating directly with your audience.”

When Balmain opened in 1945, it seemed the incarnation of France’s chic post-war glamour. Pierre Balmain dressed Sophia Loren, Josephine Baker, Lady Astor, and the queen of Thailand, combining trim tailoring with gorgeous flows of cloth to create strikingly proportioned profiles. After he died, in 1982, the house moved through the visions of Oscar de la Renta, who presided starting in 1992 and carried Balmain’s classicism into the new millennium, and an upscale reimagination of glam rock by Christophe Decarnin, under whom Rousteing joined the house, in 2009.

When he ascended two years later, he combined mass-market pragmatism (he counts his 2015 collaboration with H&M among his proudest achievements) with a certain stridency of form and cut. Under Rousteing, sales have increased sevenfold. Almost from the start, Rousteing had anti-elite ambitions, with an emphasis on the ambitions: reach beyond the domain of the fashion industry, he thinks, and you can summon pop-scale audiences.

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