FOUNDED BY AN UNASSUMING couturier in 1945, the house of Balmain was once known for its refined elegance and for dressing women such as the Duchess of Windsor and Vivienne Leigh. Fast-forward to the 21st-century and it’s a whole new story at the Parisian maison, which, after lying dormant for the better part of the last three decades, was resurrected with the arrival in 2005 of designer Christophe Decarnin. Soon after his debut, Balmain began to define that same age of excess epitomised by Versace in the 1980s and Gucci in the ’90s, bringing back a new era of unabashed opulence much favoured by the wives of Russian oligarchs and high-flying society girls. During his tenure, Decarnin paid homage to all things bling with collections that consistently featured distressed jeans with more adornments and hardware than a majorette’s uniform; artfully ripped T-shirts that cost more than what most people make in a month, and studded big-shoulder jackets, all with a good dose of sex thrown in for good measure. If all this sounds like a paean to bad taste, it was the perfect aesthetic for the pre-Lehman-crash years of in-your-face glamour, a time when a class of nouveau riche from Moscow to Shanghai was looking for statement-making clothes to pair with their already lavish accessories. Balmania, as the obsession with the brand came to be known, weathered the recession relatively unscathed but Decarnin, blaming stress-related matters, resigned after five years, leaving a hole at one of the most successful Parisian labels to be revived in recent times.
It was only a matter of months before the company named as its new creative director Olivier Rousteing, who had been Decarnin’s right-hand man. It was a tough act to follow, especially for a then-25-year-old studio assistant who almost overnight found himself at the head of one of France’s most revered houses. The designer, who learned the ropes of the trade in Italy while working for Roberto Cavalli and charmed everyone after his first show with his camerafriendly looks and impeccable manners, appeared initially to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, keeping Decarnin’s silhouette and wild rock ‘n’ roll attitude. But Rousteing, who has only three main collections under his belt, is now trying to “move away from that aesthetic” and to return to the classic French elegance of the days of Pierre Balmain and Oscar de la Renta, who worked at the house in the ’90s. “I want to give a rebirth to those old values while also keeping the super glamour. It’s important that this woman be sexy, powerful and fierce at the same time. It’s a sexy, modern couture,” he says of his vision for Balmain. In an interview with Prestige Hong Kong after a night of revelry with the city’s beau monde during his first trip here, Rousteing reveals how it felt to take the job at such a young age and talks about the excitement of this incredible journey that has made him one of the most closely watched creators in Paris.
How did you feel when you were named creative director?
I was very afraid, but because everyone around me believed in me my main fear was to disappoint them. I didn’t feel the pressure until the very last moment, when the girls were all dressed and ready to go down the catwalk for my fist show.
Did you expect to be given the job?
Not at all. There was a lot of pressure around my predecessor and I always tried to calm things down and to make everyone feel comfortable after he left. When I found out that I was replacing him, it was a big surprise because I didn’t expect this kind of meritocracy, but I didn’t hesitate. It was a great opportunity and an honour, so I couldn’t say no.
Are you still in touch with Christophe?
No, I’m not in touch with him any more but we talked after he left. I adore him and learned a lot from him.
Before moving to Paris, you spent some time working in Italy. What did you learn there?
My fashion education took place in Italy, not in France. I worked for Roberto Cavalli in Florence for five years. In Italy fashion houses are all empires, giants and they have huge resources. At Cavalli I was exposed to so much: leather, embroidery, prints, furs and many crazy techniques – everything seemed possible with materials and craftsmanship. The industry is very commercial there so often I couldn’t push the envelope, whereas at Balmain I have the chance to be more creative with my runway shows. It’s quite liberating because it’s also commercial – but in a different way.
Were you always interested in fashion, even as a child?
I’m an only child and I would spend my days drawing in my room and daydreaming. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer and were a bit surprised by my choice. What I love about fashion is that I can make people dream. It’s a beautiful form of communication. I remember going crazy when I would see an Yves Saint Laurent show – it felt like a fantastic escape for me with all these ethnic girls on the runway. His shows were like inspiring trips and that’s how I discovered that I wanted to be in fashion.
Your three collections so far have been inspired by different places. Is travelling the main source of inspiration for you?
The Balmain woman, since I started at the house, has travelled a lot. She started in Las Vegas, with the crystal fringes of my first collection; then Russia, but a different Russia, the one of Fabergé and opulent Liz Taylor-inspired jewellery, and now for spring/summer we ended up in Miami, where the inspiration came from Cuban chairs that I rendered in raffia.
Balmain clothes are very decadent and luxurious. Do you think that nowadays there is room for that kind of extravagance?
For me total luxury is right in the world where we live. It’s true that it’s a dark moment but you can either be a minimalist or do something fabulous and create a dream. I prefer to do the latter because I think we need to dream and be inspired, so you have space for Balmain and more minimalist houses. The beauty of fashion today is that there’s room for everything; there’s not a dictating trend. Everyone speaks his own language. Here in Hong Kong I saw many women wearing extravagant pieces, so this makes me think that there’s still room for opulence.
How does it feel to be the only designer of mixed race at a top French house? Do you ever think about it?
I’m proud to have this job but I don’t think about my race or my age. Nowadays, the colour of your skin doesn’t count; I only think about it when people remind me of it, otherwise it never crosses my mind. I’m
just proud that I got this job because they believed in my talent, and nothing else.
Is there anything new you would like to try at the house to make it grow even further?
I’d like to see Balmain more on the street, to make these couture pieces embraced by more people, a bit more accessible. I can’t wait to see boutiques everywhere in the world.
Are you confident about your success after almost two years at the helm?
I don’t feel that I’m confident yet. I think that in fashion when you get too confident you have to stop because what gives you the daily adrenalin and drive to succeed is the fear to fail, not just to be successful. I love that I always have to do my best. The great thing about my job is that I work with people who now are my assistants but started as my colleagues so I don’t feel that I’m the boss. I’m just one of them and we’re like a family.