Most creative directors in the fashion industry obtain the distinguished roll after decades of work in the industry with a brand and the exchange of power usually occurs after the death or retirement of the previous director. This is not the case for Olivier Rousteing, who became the sole creative director of the traditional French fashion house, Balmain, at the tender age of twenty-five. Acquiring such a position occurred after Christophe Decarnin suffered a mental breakdown that permanently removed him from the industry. This opened the door for Olivier, one that would be filled with patronizing, criticism and prejudice from both the upper echelon of the illustrious industry and others worldwide.
Olivier Rousteing was born in Bordeaux, France where he was then abandoned and placed into an orphanage. He would not be adopted for several more months, until a French white couple adopted the mixed baby and gave him a permanent home and a chance to make something of himself.
In Bordeaux Rousteing experienced harsh prejudice and was mocked a bastard. Being a child of the early nineties and in an area where traditionalism thrived, Olivier faced racial prejudice heavily and especially throughout his schooling. This led Olivier to find an outlet as an escapism tactic. The outlet that he found comfort in was fashion. It allowed him to not be a boy who was abandoned by his birth mother, adopted by white parents and who didn’t quite seem to fit in, he could transform into a “Prince of Egypt”, enabling him to find himself along the way.
The sense of identity that fashion gave Olivier caused him to continue to pursue his love of fashion. This passion added more adversity to his life, causing him to be mocked for his passion and to be labeled as “gay” for simply liking it. Although Olivier was gay, his love for fashion did not make him gay. He struggled throughout school due to insensitive peers who saw him as someone with so much identity and someone who was different. Olivier attributes the adversity that he has experienced to his success. His pride as a black male, open sexuality, desire to thrive within fashion, incredible work ethic and ability to overcome adversity have made him rather resistant to present day criticism of him and his work.
After dropping out of law school Olivier began studying fashion at Ecole Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode in Paris. After, Rousteing then began his career in fashion working under Roberto Cavalli. At Cavalli he served five years as the creative director of Cavalli’s ready-to-wear line. Unknown to Olivier, he would produce his own ready-to-wear line through Balmain in collaboration with H&M in years to come.
Olivier’s time at Cavalli ended when he took a position working closely under Decarnin at the French fashion house of Balmain. Within two years of working at Balmain, Olivier became the head creative director of the brand, shocking the fashion industry. Balmain was a traditional and long-standing fashion house, and upon the abrupt leave of Decarnin, the executives chose a total wild card, Olivier. At just twenty-five he became the second youngest creative director ever. This bold move helped in rejuvenating the brand in its entirety although many traditionalists within the industry left due to the lack of respect for someone that was significantly younger and lacked the decades of experience.
Rousteing was slowly becoming a proclaimed “diva” of the fashion world and his confidence and youth was not well received by many. However, the risky chance that executives took on this young and fresh face has generated more revenue, more brand recognition and has overall modernized and saved the fashion house. Balmain’s overall revenue increased between fifteen to twenty percent from the period between 2012 and 2015, which was when Olivier produced his breakthrough collections for the brand. Olivier has also increased the sales of menswear due to his emphasis on fashion being for everyone and especially all genders. Menswear now accounts for almost half of the company’s overall revenue.
Olivier knew that when he took over Balmain he would have to preserve some of the brand’s principles while at the same time staying true to himself as an artist. Olivier had some reservations when it came to debuting his first collection in Spring of 2012, however he had faith in himself and the work that he had produced so he remained true to himself and vision and did not alter his vision for the sake of others.
His first collection proved to be a success within the fashion community. His work was a bold change from what Decarnin and the various other modern designers had produced for Balmain. Olivier modernized the brand and included powerful metallics, structured silhouettes and began his transition into bold colors and progressive designs. With every collection that has followed since his Spring debut, Olivier has incorporated metallics, embellishments and bold juxtapositions of color. His overall vision has remained the same. Olivier wants to empower women and place a large emphasis on the women’s figure. Not an hourglass, perfect silhouette either. Rousteing believes firmly in the individualism of both women and men and aims to produce work that gives others confidence and enables them to be their own exquisite selves.
This emphasis on feminine silhouettes was showcased heavily in Olivier’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection which showcased form fitting garments that cinched at the waist to embrace womanhood. Not only is this my favorite collection that Olivier has produced, it was groundbreaking for the name that he was creating for himself as an artist while under the Balmain house. Incredibly bold colors such as fuchsia, violet, teal, canary yellow and clementine orange, were all complimented with a variety of metallics, color blocking and strong vertical stripes. This palette and execution was unlike anything that the French house had seen and it became apparent to the industry that Rousteing was staying true to himself and had officially found his footing. The collection also encapsulated a profound sense of empowerment for women.
As a whole, the fifty-five pieces in his Fall/Winter 2015 collection were quite the success and received buzz from not just those in the fashion industry, the collection drew even more attention from A-list celebrities. Balmain was now widely being viewed as a contemporary and progressive brand, one that actors, models and other socialites sought to be captured in. Olivier was proud of the work that both him and his colleagues had done for the fashion house but he aimed to make the brand more inclusive for more consumers. Therefore, later that year it was announced that Balmain would be the next luxury brand to create a ready-to-wear collection with H&M.
Several designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Versace and Alexander Wang are just some brands that have designed cheaper garments for H&M. Balmain was the ideal brand to work with in 2015. They were gaining a new extreme of celebrity status and with the members of his “Balmain Army” such as Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid, the collection would be known to the masses due to social media. On November 5th within mere hours of the launch, Olivier’s collaboration collection sold out in its entirety in both stores and online.
The collection of over one hundred pieces was consistent with Olivier’s vision; embellishments, structured patterns and of course a focus on the shape of a woman’s body. Olivier was thrilled to make pieces that were accessible to those who did not have thousands to drop on his other luxury collections. He also took it as an opportunity to remake some pieces from past collections and make them cost friendly. The collection included skirts, pants, bejeweled tops, embellished dresses and even accessories, which Balmain had not produced much of in the past. Gold was a consistent element throughout the entire collection which aided in making the pieces look more expensive even though they were made with less luxurious materials. All of the pieces looked like a piece right off the Balmain runway, they just did not include the runway price.
Olivier’s collection was also so incredibly successful due to the use of his infamous “Balmain Army” of celebrities which quickly became his “#HMBALMAINATION to promote the collaboration. Since taking over the house Balmain formed close relations with the who’s who of the fashion world like Rihanna, The Kardashians and various other supermodels. Olivier produced a short film for the collection including his famous friends and also recruited them to attend the various launch parties and events for the collection debut.
Rousteing has entirely revolutionized the way fashion and social media mix. His Instagram is filled with selfies of him and A-listers donning his latest pieces and behind the scenes looks at what goes on behind closed doors of the French fashion house. He has over three million followers on Instagram and this presence allows him to preserve this contemporary image that he has created for Balmain and also to showcase the overcoming of adversity that Olivier himself has made in the industry for being a black male in an overwhelmingly white industry.
His social media presence has not only been something that fashion fans around the world can ogle at, it has helped increase their overall revenue and has been a subtle and incredibly effective marketing tool. Olivier took a long-standing fashion house and is continuously modernizing it to fit the world that he sees around him. Through redesigning and reworking traditional ideals while maintaining his own, he has revamped and saved the house from potentially closing down.
Aside from the contributions that Olivier Rousteing has made from a business perspective, he has made even more significant contributions to the fashion industry from a social perspective. His own interpersonal dealings with discrimination and scrutiny allow Olivier the opportunity to be entirely inclusive within his own brand in an effort to encourage others to take similar notions. His inclusion of models of all races and genders and simply his design ethic, promote equality within the industry. Olivier prides himself on equality and creating a more diverse industry. It is his main goal within the industry and something that he has fought for throughout his entire life. His success at such a young age can be accredited to his extensive drive and sense of self. At thirty-one he has already accomplished so much and he is far from being done.
P.S. I fully intend to be on his Instagram one day.