Just 12 years ago, Olivier Rousteing was queuing outside an H&M store in Bordeaux, the city of his birth in France, anxiously awaiting the chance to buy Karl Lagerfeld’s collaborative collection. Four years later, he was an assistant at Roberto Cavalli, dancing in a nightclub for his pocket money. Now, he’s flying high in the hot seat at revered Parisienne couturier Balmain, having released his very own highly anticipated collaboration with H&M just last year (check out our story on the top fashion collaborations). ‘I want everyone to feel like they can be part of the Balmain world,’ he said of the high-low partnership.
The collaboration was the talk of the fashion world. But then again, after time on the nightclub podium, being in the spotlight is something to which the 30-year-old Frenchman has become accustomed. At 25, Rousteing became the second youngest creative director to head a French fashion house, beaten only by Yves Saint Laurent, who was 21 when he stepped up at Dior. In place, he set about transforming it for the 21st century.
Rousteing’s seamless takeover from designer Christophe Decarnin and the unveiling of that SS2012 collection showed Balmain at its finest – the divine excess of French couture combined with an air of understated cool.
The sought-after investment jackets, signature rocker pants and second-skin minis were present, this time encrusted and bejewelled to within an inch of their lives. We’re talking gold buckles, embossed, butter-soft leather, structured shoulders and impeccable styling. Rousteing’s impudent opulence immediately whet the appetites of the press and commandeered a new wave of followers from both the fashion elite and the world’s most style-conscious celebrities.
It’s not enough to know what customers want, though – it’s how your vision resonates across the wider world. So, the name of the game for luxury fashion nowadays? Social media, a game that Rousteing knows well and is winning. Through his social approach, he has blown away any cobwebs that may have gathered on the traditional French house (see how else social media is changing the fashion industry). His personal Instagram feed has more than 2 million followers; the fashion house he helms, 3.5 million – and growing daily. These feeds provide fans and voyeurs with unique and personal access behind the scenes at Balmain and Rousteing’s sparkling lifestyle. Additionally, his H&M collaboration, not to mention star-studded BFFs – the Kardashians, Rihanna, Kanye West, and an army of the world’s top supermodels like Naomi Campbell, Jourdan Dunn and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley – have made him ever more visible, accessible, shareable, and ‘like’-able.
Rousteing regularly appears on his friends’ social feeds, some of which, like Kim Kardashian’s, have a staggering number of followers (just the odd 57 million or so). He entwines himself in their lives, their work, his work, their colleagues and families, which further catapults him and the Balmain lifestyle to a huge audience. ‘It’s the revolution of fashion– social media is so important,’ he has said of this example of brand-building at its best. ‘Instagram is the new way to communicate and promote your own brand.’
Rousteing is the social butterfly that personifies all that Balmain is today. With his razor-sharp cheekbones and flawless complexion, he is strong, driven, successful, and hot. Combined with his social media nous, understanding of Balmain’s DNA and how we buy fashion, it’s a heady mix, and one that’s paying dividends. The house has doubled its profits every year since he took the reins as creative director.
It’s also enabling him to campaign and champion issues close to his heart – #diversity. ‘Diversity should be a topic for all of the creative people,’ Rousteing said via Instagram. ‘It is the future of fashion, it is something that is part of me and something I will always fight for.’ A mixed-race, gay man, Rousteing was born in Bordeaux and adopted by Caucasian parents when he was one.
Now, he works on removing the stigmas in his wake to create a world where colour and race are not judged. ‘I am trying to push the boundaries of ethnicity because I feel there are not enough Black and Asian people in the fashion world,’ he commented in a documentary with British presenter (and fashion darling) Alexa Chung for British Vogue.
For his shows and campaigns, Rousteing casts what he calls a ‘mixety’ of models. He cast Rihanna as the face of his 2014 campaign, putting a brand new spin on the Balmain legacy, while also putting the house on the map for a whole new, fresh-thinking generation. His collections are influenced by Afro-American style, the 80s, Michael Jackson and his Asian customers, but everything he does is with a sophisticated and oh-so-sexy Parisian spin, doused liberally in high-octane glamour.
A recent article in Business of Fashion states: ‘Consumers buying luxury fashion are more diverse than ever before. Since 2007, Asia-Pacific’s share of the global luxury goods market has grown by ten percentage points. Isn’t it time that brands reacted to the growing significance of Chinese customers in the global luxury fashion market?’
Last year, the A/W shows staged in the world’s main fashion capitals, 80 per cent of the models cast were white. Rousteing is championing to turn that around. And it’s about time.