MAINTENANCE – Who doesn’t know the artistic director of Balmain à toi et à toi avec les stars on social networks? Less well known is his personal story, which he tells in a one-on-one conversation before the release of a biopic dedicated to him in the autumn.
Cannes? Not Cannes? Olivier Rousteing will know tomorrow Wednesday whether Anissa Bonnefont Di Stefano’s documentary about her professional and private life will be part of the selection of the Directors’ Fortnight at the next Festival. For nearly two years, the young woman followed the highly media-savvy artistic director of Balmain, from his creative studio to his vacation in Mykonos, to the opening of a boutique in Los Angeles… And, above all, passing through his hometown of Bordeaux, where he was abandoned at birth. “I wasn’t always called Olivier Rousteing,” he says in the trailer, where he is discovered unvarnished, confronted with the wall of silence of children born under X. Getting excited at the slightest hint and crying his eyes out, too. “The more I knew where I was going in my work, the more I needed to know where I came from, to understand why I’d been abandoned, where my crossbreeding came from. My adoptive parents, who are very loving, didn’t have any more information,” explains the impetuous thirty-year-old.
As the majority approaches, he is attracted to clothing that can provide a shell behind which another identity is hidden. Thus he suddenly embraced the world of appearances at the end of his baccalaureate, preferring an empirical apprenticeship in Italy rather than formatted studies of fashion design in Paris. And, one thing leading to another, the hard-working kid one day found himself propelled to the head of style at the venerable Parisian fashion house at the age of 26. “Why me?” he would have asked. “Because you deserve it!” replied the owner of Balmain at the time. That was in 2011 and since then, Olivier Rousteing has been a communications whiz at Instagram, which was launching at the same time. Today, his 5.3 million followers are both the strength and the weakness of this fighter, hard-working, who deserves to be known. A one-on-one interview in which he takes the opportunity to crack the armor.
THE FIGARO. – Your fall-winter 2019 collection, presented last January, was marked “You only know my name, not my story”. What is your story, Olivier Rousteing?
I was angry to succeed, always wanted moreOlivier Rousteing
Olivier ROUSTEING. – I grew up, in Bordeaux, in a world far removed from the world of fashion. My adoptive parents gave me a lot of love, a beautiful education with real values. It’s a very gentle family, I would even say modest in the reserved and discreet sense of the word, unlike me, who is all fire and brimstone and who, even as a child, was never satisfied with my results at school, whereas they kept telling me that it was very good. I was furious to succeed, I always wanted more, I was asking for many other things that had to do with the fact that I didn’t know where I came from and that I felt apart, in spite of their immense affection.
When did they tell you they adopted you?
It’s a question I’m rarely asked in interviews. They have never needed to tell me openly, not because we don’t have the same skin colour, but because they proved to me on a daily basis that parental love for a child does not come through blood, but through gestures, attention and education on a daily basis. Of course, they read me many times the tale of Andersen’s Ugly Duckling. And if they mentioned my arrival in their home (at the age of 1, editor’s note), it was in a very natural way by explaining to me that a lady did not want me and that they dreamed of welcoming me. It was only later, through the eyes of others, when I arrived at school and they started to tell me that I was a “bastard”, after seeing my white skinned mother or father picking me up after school, that I was sent back to my origins. That goes back over twenty years, there was already a mixed population in France, but the mentality wasn’t the same as it is today. What’s more, Bordeaux is a fairly conservative city. I was different and, later on, I decided to make it my strength.
Where does your interest in fashion come from?
I didn’t grow up dreaming of being a designer. I wanted to be an astronaut, President of the Republic and, finally, a lawyer in international law, which is why I went to law school. But, since I was a kid, my great passion was to draw heroes and heroines with incredible costumes. During all these years, I hadn’t realized that clothes and, by extension, fashion could be used as armour behind which it is possible to hide another identity. I really became aware of this during my first few months in college. And I branched off to fashion school in Paris.
Don’t tell me you weren’t a teenage boy concerned about his looks!
My parents, and especially my grandparents, have always placed a lot of importance on my outfit. They often took me shopping. I was very clean, very preppy, dressed from head to toe in Ralph Lauren, a perfect little Bordeaux boy (laughs)!
At Esmod Paris, wouldn’t you have just been there once?
It’s true, I stayed seven months altogether! I make sure I say this about fashion schools, because I wouldn’t want to encourage young people to give up their studies. But, personally, this type of training did not suit me. There are specific methods for forging your creative identity. I was a fan of John Galliano at Dior, Tom Ford at Gucci and, of course, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. My ambition was overflowing and the teachers would tell me that there were, of course, these few great artistic directors but, above all, a majority of designers who don’t work in the light. They were trying to make me more concrete, to make my dreams less concrete, and I preferred to go and learn elsewhere, on the job.
Why in Italy?
I was 18 years old, a need to get away from France, to live my youth elsewhere, and a strong attraction for Italian culture, its history and, also, la dolce vita. I had studied Latin for seven years and I landed in Rome where I did a first internship in a fashion house. Then I went to Milan, I approached many brands including Versace with my huge book full of drawings, before going to knock on the door of Gucci and Roberto Cavalli in Florence. The latter said yes to me first. I came back as a trainee, I worked my way up to become a designer for men and women, and I stayed there until Balmain called me, in 2009, alongside Christophe Decarnin to structure the collections.
At Balmain, in fact, I’ve been told on numerous occasions that you were an artistic director who was particularly respectful of his teams. That’s not always the first quality of an A.D.!
I have a lot of respect for the people around me because my vision of Balmain is particular, quite controversial even, we like or dislike Olivier Rousteing.
I have a great deal of respect for the people around me because my vision of Balmain is a special one, quite controversial even, we like or dislike it, it’s not neutral, and I consider their trust an honour, a privilege. When I arrived, I was 23 years old. I was younger than many of the current stylists, even interns. Many welcomed me with open arms, they believed in me, and when Mr. Hivelin (the former owner, who died in 2015, editor’s note) offered me the opportunity to take over as artistic director in 2011, I made sure to keep this close guard. Work is a big part of my life, I live 24 hours a day for Balmain, and those around me are more than collaborators. I am always saddened when one of them leaves. This house has a family feel to it. It has grown a lot over the last few years, but I try to maintain its special spirit. Besides, our jobs are not about saving lives. You have to put things into perspective, channel your stress, be proportionate in your emotions because we only create clothes.
This development of Balmain is closely linked to the acquisition in 2016 by Mayhoola for Investments?
When I arrived at 44 François-Ier Street, there were 30 people in the building. Today, the company has about 400 employees. An evolution had been set in motion before the change of shareholder, but let’s just say that the shareholder’s ambition is much greater. And, also, more in line with mine. Before, I remember that I was more disappointed than my boss when our sales increased by 5 to 10%. Now, Balmain’s results are in line with my expectations. Of course, the investments are also proportional. This strategy suits me.
Are you keeping track of the numbers?
We may be the biggest designer, but the story usually turns short if the collections don’t sellOlivier Rousteing
Every day! And maybe even more so than my president (laughs). Recently, on TV with other designers, Michel Denisot asked us all, “What is an art director?” Everyone has their own definition. For me, it’s being a business man. Then, it all depends on which court everyone wants to play in; you may be the greatest of designers, but the story usually turns short if the collections don’t sell. Of course, you have to have ideas, a strong vision. But I don’t think that enjoying total freedom to express oneself, in the manner of an artist who paints as he sees fit in his studio, is adapted to our times. Personally, I need to know our scores, to understand the resale rate of the collections according to the different markets in order to improve and better meet expectations.
Your ready-to-wear fashion shows now exceed 100 runs. You have recently become involved in the interior design of new boutiques. You signed your first haute couture collection in January… You say you don’t need total freedom, but you still have a free hand!
Mostly I’m more sure of myself. Years have gone by, I had to prove myself to two shareholders, understand what was expected of me each time, and then, on a personal level, I feel freer. No one has ever set limits for me and, going back to the documentary on Balmain and my life, five years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that either.
Paradoxically, you’ve been less active on social networks lately!
My strength is having a lot of followers! And that’s also my weakness. My rise, my career, my success are, I would say, “quite abnormal” compared to my youth, and my collections have unfortunately too often been judged according to this rating on social networks. This referred to my image and not to my work. It touched me a lot because I’m a hard-working, hardworking person, and I ended up getting tired of the fact that the reviews of my shows sometimes depend on three selfies when it’s a collection that we worked on for six months. Today, I feel like saying and showing something else. You knew the Olivier Rousteing who created the Balmain Army, a flamboyant “extra glamazon” woman, and now I might be someone more in the background. It won’t hurt me, and the Balmain label is now known not to be systematically associated with another name.
What is your vision for this one?
For a long time, I said I was Balmain’s baby. Today, Balmain is my baby. That being the case, and I often say this to my president, with whom I work hand in hand: Balmain is me today, but it will also be a day without me. “It is important that this very eclectic post-war house, which dressed Josephine Baker as well as the Queen of Thailand, Dalida, Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot in the 1960s, before becoming a sleeping beauty and being recently awakened, has its own strength and resonates no matter who is at the helm. An art director is an interpreter: he is there to translate the legacy over a given period of time, and the name of the label must remain the most important one.