How to reinvent a heritage brand for millennials. Balmain.
Original URL: The Economist 1843
How Olivier Rousteing has turned a small, classic French couturier into the favourite fashion house of Kim Kardashian and Rihanna
Shortly after 3pm on September 29th, 31-year-old Olivier Rousteing strode through the shimmering, fleshy backstage area at Balmain’s Spring 2017 Paris Fashion Week show. Along the marble hallway of a hôtel particulier in the 8th arrondissement, long-limbed clusters of supermodels were gamely tolerating final applications of leg-moisturiser, make-up touch-ups and minutely precise hair interventions from squads of specialists as fast and accurate as any Formula 1 pit-stop team. The crowd parted as Rousteing swept through.
Wearing a belted, black silk tuxedo and a focused expression that accentuated his razor-sharp cheekbones, Rousteing resembled a sensuous hit man. Target identified, he led us to the board upon which photographs of every outfit were tacked.
We asked him to tell us about the collection (for that’s what fashion editors always ask). “There is no theme,” said Rousteing in his fast, French-accented lilt. “No inspiration from travel or time. The inspiration is what I feel, and what I feel now is peace, light and serenity. I feel like in my six years here before this, I have tried to fight so many battles. Because there is no point anymore in fighting about boundaries and limits in fashion. Balmain has its place in fashion.”
And the clothes? “There is a lot of fluidity. A lot of knitwear, lightness, ponchos. No body-con dresses. But whatever I do, even if I cover up my girls, it is like people can say I am vulgar. So this is what it is. I think there is nothing vulgar. I think it is really chic. I think it is really French. It is how I see Paris. And I have had too many haters during the last three years to defend myself again. So, this is Balmain.” And then the show began.
Under Rousteing, Balmain has become the most controversial fashion house in Paris. Rousteing has attracted (but not bought, as other, far bigger houses do) patronage from contemporary culture’s most significant influencers. Rihanna, all the Kardashians, Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber – a royal flush of modern celebrity aristocracy – all champion him. Immediately after this show, in that backstage hubbub, Kim Kardashian told me: “I thought it was very powerful…I loved the sequins, and I loved all the big chainmail belts – that was probably my favourite.” Yet for every famous fan there is a member of the fashion establishment who will sniff over coffee in Le Castiglione that Rousteing’s crowd is declassé and his aesthetic best described by that V-word. The New York Times’s fashion critic Vanessa Friedman reckoned this collection appropriate for “dressing for the captain’s dinners on a cruise ship to Fantasy Island”. At least she did not use the V-word. When I once deployed it – as a compliment – in a 2015 Vogue menswear review that declared “Rousteing is confidently negotiating a fine line between extravagance and vulgarity”, I was told that Rousteing was aggrieved.
The fashion world’s ambivalence towards Rousteing is a measure of its conflicted feelings towards much in contemporary culture. Last year Robin Givhan of the Washington Post wrote of Balmain: “The French fashion house is always ostentatious and sometimes vulgar. It feeds a voracious appetite for attention. It is anti-intellectual. Antagonistic. Emotional. It is shocking. It is perfect for this era of social media, which means it is powerfully, undeniably relevant.” Since joining Instagram four years ago Rousteing has posted 4,000 images and won 4m followers. The combined reach of his audience members and models at this Balmain show was greater than the population of Britain and France combined. Balmain was the first French fashion house to gain more than 1m followers, and currently has 5.5m of them. As digital technology disrupts fashion, Balmain’s seemingly effortless mastery of the medium galls some. Last year the designer posted an image of a comment from a bitchy follower to his feed. It read: “Olivier Rousteing spends more times taking selfies for Instagram than designing clothes for Balmain.” Underneath, in block capitals, he commented “I LOVE MY HATERS”.
Rousteing can be funny and flip – doing a video interview after the show, I opened by asking, tritely, how he felt. He replied: “Now I feel like some Chicken McNuggets with barbecue sauce, and then some M&M’s ice cream.” When at work, however, that flipness flips to entirely unflip. The previous evening, at a final fitting for the collection, Rousteing had paced his studio, his face a scowl of concentration, applying final edits to the outfits to be worn by models Doutzen Kroes and Alessandra Ambrosio. The 30-strong team of couturiers working in the adjoining atelier delivered a steady stream of altered dresses. “We are ready,” he said from behind a glass desk in a rare moment of downtime. “This a big show – 80 looks – and I want a collection that is full of both the commercial and couture. But it’s smooth too. All of the girls are excited about the after-party and interested in the music. And eating pizza.” In the corridor outside Gigi Hadid – this season’s apex supermodel – was indeed eating pizza, with gusto.
The fitting went on until far beyond midnight; Rousteing, fiercely focused, demonstrated the work ethic for which he is famous. When he was studio manager for Christophe Decarnin, his predecessor at Balmain, the young then-unknown was always the first in and last out of the studio. Emmanuel Diemoz, who joined Balmain as finance controller in 2001 and became ceo in 2011, says that his hard graft was one of the reasons he was chosen to succeed Decarnin.
“For sure it was quite a gamble,” says Diemoz. “But we could see the talent of Olivier. Plus he understood the work of Christophe – who had helped the brand recover – so he represented continuity. He was a hard worker, clearly a leader, with a lot of creativity. Plus the size of the turnover at that time was not so huge. So we were able to take the risk.”
Which is why, aged 24, Rousteing became the creative director of one of Paris’s best known – but indubitably faded – fashion houses. In 2004 it had been close to bankruptcy. In 2012, Rousteing’s first full year in charge, Balmain’s sales were €30.4m and its profit €3.1m. In 2015 sales were €121.5m and its profit €33m. Vulgarity is subjective; numbers are not.
Rousteing, who is of mixed race, was adopted at five months by white parents and enjoyed an affluent and loving upbringing in Bordeaux. “My mum is an optician and my dad was running the port. They are both really scientific – not artistic. So I had that kind of life. Bordeaux is really bourgeois and really conservative, I have to say.”
After an ill-starred three-month stint at law school – “I was doing international law. And I was like, ‘oh my God, that is so boring’” – he did a fashion course that he managed to tolerate for five months. “I found that really boring as well. I just don’t like actually people who are trying to kill your dream. And I felt that is what my teachers were trying to do.” Following a three-month internship in Rome – “also boring” – Rousteing became fascinated with Tom Ford’s work at Gucci. “I was obsessed, obsessed, obsessed. Sometimes the press did not get it but I thought ‘this is like genius, the new porn chic’. Obsessed, full stop.” He wanted to work there – “that was my dream” – but applied to every fashion house he could, and found an opportunity to intern at Roberto Cavalli. “They took me in from the beginning. I met Peter Dundas [then womenswear designer at the brand] and he said you are going to be my right hand – and start in four days.” Rousteing counts his five years in Italy as formative both creatively and commercially, but when the opportunity came to return to France in 2009 he leapt at it. “Christophe said he liked my work and that he needed someone to manage the studio. So two weeks later I was here. I loved Balmain at the time, when Christophe was in charge. It was all about rock ’n’ roll chic, sexy, Parisian. And he was appealing to a younger generation. You can see when brands become old but Balmain was touching this new audience. I always say Christophe’s Balmain was Kate Moss but mine is Rihanna.”
When Decarnin left and Rousteing replaced him, the response was a resounding “who?” His youth prompted some to anticipate failure. “It was not easy at all. Every season I had the same questions.” Furthermore, Rousteing (who has said he thinks of himself as neither black nor white) was the only non-white chief designer at a Parisian couture house. In a nation in which very few people of colour hold senior positions, his race may have contributed both to the establishment’s suspicion of him and to his powerful sense of being an outsider.
As he began to build a personal vernacular of close-fitted, heavily jewelled, gleefully grandiose menswear – fantastical uniform for a Rousteing-imagined gilded age – for both women and men, that V-word loomed. “They asked, ‘But is it luxury? Is it chic? Is it modern?’ All those kinds of words. But you know there is no one definition [of fashion] even if people in Paris think there is. And, I’m sorry, but I think the crowd in fashion are those who understand the least what is avant-garde today.”
In 2013 Rihanna visited the studio, met Rousteing, and reported all with multiple Instagram posts. “You are the most beautiful spirit, so down to earth and kind! @olivier_rousteing I think I’m in love!!! #Balmain.” :’)” Rousteing met Kim Kardashian at a party in New York – they were drawn together, he recalls, because they were both shy – and was promptly invited to lunch with her family in Los Angeles. An outsider in the firmament of old-guard Paris fashion, Rousteing was earning insider status within a new, and much more influential, supranational elite. He points out that Valentino, Saint Laurent and Pierre Balmain himself “were close to the jet set of their time. What I have on my front row is the people who inspire my generation.”
From them, he learned a new way of doing business. “I think it was Rihanna and the music industry that first understood how Instagram can be part of the business world as well as the personal. But in fashion? When we started it was ‘why do you post selfies? Why do we need to know your life, see you waking up, see you working? Why don’t you keep it private.’ And I was like ‘you will see’.” Rousteing cheerfully declares his love for Facetune – “I don’t have Botox but I do have digital Botox!” – an app that helps him airbrush his selfies and tweak those ski-slope cheekbones.
From his office around the corner from Rousteing’s, Diemoz adds: “When Olivier first proposed Balmain use social media, our investment in traditional media was costing a lot. Here was an alternative costing less but bringing huge visibility. It has been successful, quite rapidly…we decided to be less Parisian in a way but to speak to a new population. A brand has to be built around its heritage but we are proposing a new form of communication dedicated to a wider group of customers.”
The impact of that strategy became apparent in 2015, when Rousteing and Balmain were invited to design a collection for the Swedish fast-fashion retailer H&M. Within minutes of going on sale – and this is not hyperbole – the collection, available at vastly cheaper prices than Balmain-proper, had completely sold out. In London, customers fought on the pavement outside H&M’s Regent Street branch. “Balmainia!” blared the headlines.
You have to move fast to get backstage after a Balmain show. I was out of my seat and trotting with purpose even before the string-heavy orchestra at the end of the catwalk had quite stopped playing Adele. Rousteing had taken his bow merely seconds before. Still, too slow: I ended up in a clot of Rousteing well-wishers stuck in a corridor blocked by security guards. A Middle Eastern woman against whom I was indelicately jammed looked at me, laughed, shook her head, then said: “We pay millions for a fashion house – and then this happens!”
In June, Balmain was bought for a reported €485m by Mayhoola, a Qatar-ased wealth fund said to be controlled by the nation’s ruling family. As so often with Rousteing-related revelations, some declared themselves nonplussed. “Why Would Mayhoola Pay Such a High Price for Balmain??”, one headline asked. Yet Mayhoola, which acquired Valentino four years previously for $858m, might have scored a bargain.
Despite its huge, Instagram-enhanced footprint, Balmain is a small, lean and relatively undeveloped business. Most luxury fashion houses today – Chanel, Burberry, Dior, et al – will emphasise their catwalk collections for marketing purposes but make most of their money from the sale of accessories, fragrances and small leather goods like handbags and shoes. One of the big fashion companies makes a mere 5% from its catwalk clothes. At Balmain, by contrast, clothes bring in almost all the revenues. If Balmain had the same clothes-to-accessories ratio as its competitors, its overall annual income could be over €1 billion.
The company is moving in that direction. New accessory lines are in the pipeline. “Now we have to transform that desire into business activity,” said Diemoz. “Sunglasses, belts, fragrances, the kind of products that can be more affordable.” The first bags should be available in January, as will a wider range of shoes, and then more, more, more.
Six days after his show, on the last day of Paris Fashion Week, I returned to the Balmain atelier. Apart from two assistants, Rousteing was the only person there – everybody else had gone on holiday to recover from the frenzy of preparing the show, or was busy selling the collection at the showroom around the corner. Rousteing sat behind his desk in the empty room, wearing slingback leopard-print slippers, sweatpants and shades. “I am not even tired! I am excited. Because there are so many things happening – and I can’t wait.”
Luke Leitchis style editor of 1843