He may be as famous for his Instagram exploits—partying with models, canoodling with Kardashians—as for his work cool-ifying the venerable French fashion label Balmain. But Olivier Rousteing, the 30-year-old designer whose buzzy H&M collaboration launches this month, says he’s out to upend an industry that’s too old and too white to reach millennials like him
Olivier Rousteing is old. “Old, old, old,” he moans, peering at his re?ection in the window of The Klay, the fancy gym in Paris where he takes his morning boxing lessons. He puts down his cigarette and presses his skin upward, miming a face-lift. In less than seven days, the fashion designer will turn 30. “I have de?nitely lost some of my youth,” he says. Not so much, though, that his face doesn’t immediately bounce back when he lets it go.
The past few years have moved fast for Rousteing. His relationship with H&M, of all things, puts it in perspective: Eleven years ago, he was standing in line outside the H&M in Bordeaux, waiting with everyone else for Karl Lagerfeld’s collection to drop. Eight years ago, he was an assistant at Roberto Cavalli, creating sketches for the Italian label’s collaboration with H&M. And now, this month, Rousteing releases his own highly anticipated H&M project—a line inspired by the aristocratic fetishwear he’s been producing for nouveau royals like Kanye West and Beyoncé. “They ask you to take some pieces from your ?rst collection, like vintage,” Rousteing says, sipping a restorative orange juice. “So it is kind of a celebration, which in a way is kind of scary. It was only ?ve years ago! To me it feels like yesterday!”
A collaboration with a youth brand like H&M is a natural ?t for Rousteing, who ever since becoming Balmain’s creative director at the age of 25 has brought new life to a label that until recently conjured the smell of musky grandmother perfume. A bright-eyed sylph with a sunny disposition, skin the color of a nonfat soy latte, and a limitless collection of deep V-neck tees, he has managed to bring the septuagenarian fashion house, famous for its heavy embroidery and heavier price tags, into the modern day, not only through his designs but also through force of his persona. With his boundless enthusiasm, he has charmed the jaded fashion industry and racked up recruits to his #BalmainArmy, a collection of models, actors, musicians, and pop-culture icons whom he de?nes, in his American-accented Frenglish, as “glamorous and beautiful and diverse and con?dence and sexy and powerful—especially powerful”—and become something of a celebrity himself, thanks to the duckface sel?es he posts on Instagram.
The attention he has brought the house of Balmain has transformed a business that was not long ago facing bankruptcy, even as it has occasionally caused the suits at the label to gulp back a few mon Dieus.
“Yes, I am aware of the rap song ‘Anaconda,’?” booms Balmain CEO Emmanuel Diemoz. “I have not been aware of it before, and yeah, for sure, that was not easy,” he goes on, possibly in reference to the awkwardness that ensued when an assistant was called upon to explain the meaning of Nicki Minaj’s line He toss my salad like his name Romaine / And when we done, I make him buy me Balmain. “We must remember Balmain is a very old Parisian fashion house,” Diemoz says. “But when it comes to success and democratization, you cannot control everything. The worst for us would be not to be quoted anywhere.”
Considering it was only a few years ago that the CEO of Louis Roederer—the venerable French house that produces the champagne Cristal—appeared to dismiss rap music’s audience as too lowbrow for its product, this is progress. Of course, getting his CEO to a place where he considers it a positive development when the label is mentioned in the same breath as ass-eating is also part of the reason Rousteing feels so old. “When I started out, I was Balmain’s baby,” he says. “To tell you the truth, now I think that Balmain is my baby.”
“He said that?” Diemoz says. There’s a long bit of silence. “Well, I suppose it is the truth. He has built his brand, and without him we would not be where we are today.”
At the gym, Rousteing looks up at the sky, where the morning sun is just creeping through the clouds. “It’s perfect for a sel?e, actually,” he observes. Holding the phone in front of his face, he adjusts his black Borsalino hat, props his hand on his chin, pouts his lips, and sucks in his cheeks. Click.
Creating a brand is something that comes naturally to Rousteing, since it’s something he’s been doing his whole life. As the adopted only child of a white professional couple, he spent a lot of his time concocting origin stories for himself, ones that didn’t involve being plucked from an orphanage at 4 months.
“When I was like 10 years old, I was the Prince of Egypt. When I was 15, I was the Prince of Brazil,” he’d said the previous evening over a glass of Pinot Noir at Hôtel Costes, a Paris hotel that has itself been aspirationally swishy since the mid-’90s. With its curated house music and international clientele, it’s a far cry from Bordeaux, where Rousteing grew up, a city that is “very conservative,” he says, “and very, very French.”
Rousteing appreciated the culture: The out?t that ?rst piqued his interest in fashion, he says, was a Chanel jacket and matelassé bag belonging to his grandmother. But he was obsessed with America, which he knew through pop music—Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Michael Jackson. “I was like, ‘How can you name someone the King of Pop?‘?” It impressed upon him the idea that America was a land of possibility. “You feel like anything can happen,” he says. “You have to show that you deserve it and that you are worth it, but they let you do it. In France, it’s not so easy.”
Rousteing played the game. He worked hard, did well in school, and was encouraged by his parents to enroll in law school. “I like defending people,” he explains. But after a month, he left it to study fashion at the École Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode in Paris. He didn’t fare much better there. “I hated it,” he says. His professors, he felt, were constantly trying to tamp down his ambition.
He quit school for good and took off for Italy. “I wanted to change my life,” he says. An internship at a small couture house in Rome led to another one at Roberto Cavalli in Florence, where he started out doing mostly grunt work, dancing in a nightclub to make ends meet. Five years in, after he had worked his way up to the “right hand” of then head designer Peter Dundas, he decided he was homesick for Paris. He sent his CV on impulse to Christophe Decarnin, the sensitive goth genius creative director of Balmain, who had not so long ago helped pull the house back from the brink of bankruptcy. Decarnin had gotten a lot of buzz for designs like his $1,500 ripped jeans, but he didn’t talk much. (“Literally not at all,” says Diemoz. “He was very deep in his art.”) Perhaps he was seeking to make up this deficit when he hired the gregarious Rousteing, who three weeks later began working as Decarnin’s studio manager.
Despite his volubility, Rousteing is, like everyone else, circumspect on the details that led Decarnin to miss his winter 2011 show and prompted his subsequent disappearance from the industry. It was said he had a nervous breakdown, and a spokesperson, quoted anonymously, claimed he was suffering from an ailment that was “not physical.”
“Obviously it was really difficult,” Rousteing says. “We were really close. I always believed in him, and obviously something amazing happened to me, but I didn’t step on him to get where I am. It is thanks to him that I got what I have today.”
There were a few other obvious candidates to replace Decarnin, but Balmain’s top brass weren’t interested in hiring one of the “fashion divas” presumed to be next in line, according to a source inside the house. They wanted someone young and fresh. Their gaze fell on Rousteing, who had only been there a year but who had forged a reputation as an insatiable, eager worker who was also really fun to hang out with. “The market is in general greedy for new faces, which we perfectly know,” says Diemoz. “The fact that he was not known was risky, but it was part of the game.”
The Sunday after he was approached about taking over the job, Rousteing invited Amanda Ramirez, a former intern, to coffee at Starbucks. “He was like, ‘So this happened,’ ” she told me. Ramirez, whom Rousteing asked to take over the job of being his “right hand,” wasn’t particularly surprised by his promotion. “I don’t know anybody that has the amount of energy he has.”
Others were taken aback, he says, and when the decision was announced there was a mini exodus. “Some people left because they couldn’t have any respect for me because I was younger. Some people stayed because they loved me and thought I was really talented,” Rousteing says. In their place, he promoted younger, lesser-known talent. “All of the people who work here are our friends,” says Rousteing’s assistant Michail Papadogkonas, a 31-year-old former bank employee from Greece who identifies himself as Rousteing’s best friend and whose deep V-neck reveals a “bros before hos” tattoo. They all work collaboratively, often until late at night. “We argue with him and we fight and we get pissed off and I slam the door and I leave and then we talk later,” says Ramirez. “It’s not like working for our boss. We are like, ‘How are we going to make this work together?’ ”
At first they had no idea what they were doing. “Maybe Olivier did,” says Ramirez.
His ?rst collection was inspired by Las Vegas, a place Rousteing had only ever seen in movies. “I think my youth helped,” he says. “Like a kid, he’s not afraid of the water if he doesn’t know how to swim. He’s just going to go in.”
He based the next collection around a Fabergé egg he had seen at an auction of Elizabeth Taylor’s belongings. For another, he took the office on a trip to Versailles. The reviews were solid. Rousteing was proving himself a worthy carrier of Balmain’s bedazzled torch. But as time went on, he realized he wasn’t especially happy. Two years ago, he paced nervously before his runway show in Paris—the collection was military-inspired, sure to be a crowd-pleaser—when, he says, he was approached by Suzy Menkes, then fashion editor for theInternational Herald Tribune. Sensing his anxiety, she offered comfort. “She said, ‘Just stay true to yourself, because when you are honest with yourself and you are happy, that’s a success.’?”
There are times in everyone’s life when a platitude can blow you away with its wisdom. For Rousteing this was one of those times. “I realized, I had been trying too much to please everyone,” he said. “To please the press, to please the buyers, all the people from the house.”
It was not that he wasn’t proud of what he had produced. The craftsmanship, the attention to detail, the historical references—all were impeccable. But it wasn’t really him. It was the work of a very good student. “I started to feel like, ‘I don’t want to be a marionette.'”
Back at the Hôtel Costes, Rousteing takes a long drag on his cigarette. “I think I have been for long insecure,” he says thoughtfully. “Because when I was a kid I was trying to please my parents, because I was scared to go back to the orphanage. And in a way I had always felt like I had to thank everybody for what’s happened in my life. On this day I realized, you know what, I am going to believe in myself, whatever the reviews are.”
From then on, he vowed to embrace who he was: a pop-star-worshipping, social-media-loving capital-M millennial. His next few collections were inspired not by long-forgotten times but by things from his own life, the streetwear of the ’80s, the androgynous glamour of childhood idols like Michael Jackson. And he set about conscripting members of what he called “the newest and freshest generation, my generation, the generation of the future.”
Core members of the “Balmain Army” include the model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, whom he met at a dinner at the Chateau Marmont. “It was pretty fancy, and I wanted to talk about dick, and Rosie was the only other person who wanted to talk about dick,” he explains. (Sorry, what? “DICK,” he clarifies for me.)
Then, of course, there’s Kanye West, a fan from the Decarnin era, and Kim Kardashian, who introduced him to the rest of her family.”We all love him,” says Kylie Jenner, who co-starred in a recent campaign. “He’s so charming, he makes you feel like he’s your friend.”
Rihanna felt the same way when she visited the atelier during her Diamonds World Tour and Instagrammed all the out?ts Rousteing had picked out for her. #TheyOnlyPlayMyMusicInHere #HeCalledMeHisMUSE #IDiiiiiiieeeeddd, read the caption.
“That was a moment, for Olivier, when everything switched,” says Michail Papadogkonas.
For one, Rousteing grasped the power of Instagram, which at the time was just starting to gain ground and seemed to Rousteing like a powerful marketing tool. “I am an artist, but I am also a businessman,” says Rousteing, rejecting as outdated the notion that a creative life must also be an impoverished one. “I think it’s over, those painters who died and they have no money and after they died their paintings are so expensive. It’s like ‘Fuck, why were you not rich before?’ Now I think the talent is making a business, and still being alive to enjoy it.”
Watching Kim Kardashian taught him a thing or two about how to exploit social media to grow his business. “We are in a world where everybody wants to see every step,” Rousteing says. “The behind-the-scenes.” At ?rst, Balmain was not entirely on board with the photos he started posting on his own and the company’s accounts, or the sel?es he took, sometimes with celebrities, always with what became his trademark expression: cheeks sucked in, lips pouty, ?erce Grace Jones gaze. “I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Where are we going with this?’?” says Diemoz.
But as Balmain’s followers and sales increased, the CEO came around. Sure, the vast majority of people on social media can’t afford a $3,000 poncho, but Balmain also sells shampoo, sunglasses, perfume. “By sharing his life, he is feeding the market,” Diemoz says.
Between Rousteing’s Internet presence and “celebrity outreach,” as one blog put it, the brand began picking up buzz. “We started seeing it in pictures and magazine covers and we were like, ‘Oh, my god, it’s us!'” says Amanda Ramirez. “We were playing adults, and people likedit.”
Of course, the approval has not been entirely universal. As the Kardashian Principle attests, popularity is accompanied by a corresponding amount of what even the French call “haters.” Articles about Rousteing refer to his work as divisive or controversial, although they don’t usually say why. Privately and online, people in the industry will say Rousteing comes across as a narcissist or that he is too awestruck by celebrities. Rousteing brushes this off. “In France we have this word, blasé, like it’s cool to be bored,” he says. “And I am not bored, I am ambitious. And maybe this makes them mad, because they forgot when they were sexy and young.”
And all designers hang out with celebrities, as one poster on a site for fashion obsessives noted: “He reminds me of Gianni Versace in the ’90s and Jean Paul Gaultier when he was young and chilling with Madonna.” For Rousteing’s critics, the problem seems to be whichcelebrities he’s chosen: “Balmain, the house of reality sex stars,” reads one comment on a picture Rousteing posted of the Kardashians on Instagram. “Great house going downhill.”
Rousteing’s face tightens at the mention of this. “Kim is so chic,” he says, growing increasingly enraged as he recalls comments the pregnant Kardashian drew when she wore a Balmain dress to this year’s Video Music Awards (example: “Bitch look like a potato”). “I don’t know how you say in English, but in French you say anti-féminist,” he says. “Should she stay home and wear black? Because she is proud of giving birth, she doesn’t want to wear a caftan, she wants to be on the red carpet to be with her husband and supporting him. What is more beautiful than that?”
As a Person of Color in an industry that has long suffered from unbearable whiteness, Rousteing has been lauded for introducing diversity—both by virtue of his own existence, but also by casting what he refers to as a “mixety” of models in his shows and anointing Rihanna as the face of his 2014 collection when a French fashion house hadn’t featured a black model as the face of a campaign, like, ever. He feels a successful, mixed-race couple like the Kardashian-Wests should count as equally inspiring. “Where was this couple for me, growing up?” he says. “It is to me like a modern fairy tale.”
Rousteing may have scrapped the law career, but he’s still defending people. Looking at the members of his Balmain Army, most of them are people whom society has built up and also sort of diminishes. The Misunderstood Famous. The Crème de la Downtrodden: Rihanna, with her steadfast resistance to behaving like anyone’s role model. The Kardashians, who only keep multiplying whenever people tell them to go away. Kanye, who will have his greatness recognized, even if it’s just by wearing dope-ass coats to the airport. And Rosie Huntington-Whiteley—well. Even when it’s just…Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. “She has been considered for a long time a bombshell,” Rousteing says. “But she is also cool and fucking amazing.
“Sometimes it’s not only a matter of fighting against something,” he goes on. “It’s a matter of believing in someone.”
Like an adopted kid from Bordeaux who is tired of having to justify his existence.
Rousteing’s latest recruit is reformed child pop star Justin Bieber, whom he took, dressed in a glittering Prince Charming jacket, as his date to the highbrow Met Gala this year, an event that despite Bieber’s international stardom he had never been to.
“It’s an honor to have you,” André Leon Talley gushed on the red carpet.
“I’m really honored to have this guy support me,” Bieber said, shrugging his gilded shoulders.
Back at his office, Rousteing takes a long look at himself in the full-length mirror he keeps by his desk. These days, there’s no longer a need to make up a more glamorous backstory for himself. “I don’t feel insecure about anything anymore,” he says. Balmain is doing well, and the company has doubled its revenue. His next show is coming up, and after that, a birthday party in Malibu. “I am the prince of my own castle.”