Olivier Rousteing: The Rise of Balmain


Balmain is a luxury fashion house named after its French designer Pierre Balmain. The brand rose to popularity after the second world war and is known for their couture roots. Since Pierre’s death, a number of designers have taken the Balmain chair adding their own identity to the brand, with Olivier Rousteing currently holding the throne. While most designers took Balmain down the classic, long established heritage of couture and class, it was Cristophe Decarnin who from 2006 shifted the focus from luxury craftmanship to glamour and social status.
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Before Decarnin, Balmain were a struggling couture house completely contrasting to the powerful house they are today. The ever rising sun of bankruptcy dawned on the owners who decided to take the brand in a new direction. Balmain’s big business move was to eschew couture work and offer ready-to-wear collections.

Decarnin shocked many with his first collection. Completely throwing the Balmain rulebook out the window, showing little remorse or empathy to the deep rooted couture personality that ran at the heart of Balmain. There was no small transition period where Decarnin would slowly and subtly embed his own take on what Balmain should be over a number of years. He was having none of that. Decarnin showed his intent from the very first collection.

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The risk inevitably paid off– quite literally. Prices rocketed and the product demand matched. Sales soared as those affluent enough to buy Balmain, were loving it. Decarnin had successfully piloted the brand to greater heights.

2008 heralded another great milestone for Balmain as the fashion house debuted menswear. This of course came with a huge amount of scepticism as critics wondered if Balmain, a brand known exclusively for its womenswear, could produce anything worthy of note for men. Decarnin proved the critics wrong as the brand received increasing support from the likes of Kanye West. Let it be made clear, Decarnin was no revolutionary when it came to expressing his clothing in an avant-garde style. His ready-to-wear collections did what they were meant to do – sell. There was no creative experimentation.

Vogue Paris

A large play in building the early momentum for Balmain to pick up new clients rose from Decarnin’s main stylist Emmanuelle Alt. At the time, Alt happened to be the assistant to the Vogue Paris editor Roitfeld. Has the phrase “it is not what you know but who you know” ever felt more relevant?

Heavily featuring on Vogue Paris elevated Balmain to a greater status and the elite’s in France were keen to make the necessary purchases to keep up to trend. Unfortunately for Decarnin’s Balmain, the tide was to change once more. The new decade began and Roitfeld had announced her departure as editor of Vogue Paris. Who was to take her place but Alt. With Emmanuelle Alt stepping into such a busy role, her collaboration with Balmain had to come to an end.

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The trouble snowballed from there as critics began to slander Decarnin for his lack of originality with each collection. The Balmain designs were the same year after year slowing the sales train down tremendously. Balmain’s owners grew weary and rumours spread like wildfire the moment Decarnin failed to make an appearance to the Fall 2011 collection. It was not long after, when his permanent departure from Balmain was announced.

Olivier Rousteing

2011 heralded the arrival of the young and flamboyant designer Olivier Rousteing. Only 25 at the time, Rousteing had huge pressure immediately placed on him given the status Balmain now held amongst the fashion elites.

Olivier Rousteing was an intern at Roberto Cavalli before his promotion to creative director of Cavalli’s ready-to-wear women’s collection. He later worked for Decarnin under Balmain before the role was offered to him. Rousteing’s appointment did not come without backlash. This is France after all and the French typically possess a vulgar attitude towards people of colour, particularly notable in the fashion industry. Rousteing has spoken out on the initial murmurs that grew from the news of his appointment. He mentions criticism of his age, people’s ignorance to who he was, but most prominently, his race.

“People were like, ‘Oh my God, he’s a minority taking over a French house!”

Kanye West – Wolves

The Fall 2016 campaign features Kanye West’s fiercely indomitable Wolves. With the aid of photographer Steven Klein and a pack of Balmain members, the campaign was brought to life. Rousteing effectively highlights the strength, unity, and power held by those who don Balmain, by wielding the energy of music and dance.

“It is a campaign based on music. That was really important for me.” – Olivier Rousteing

Rousteing understood deeply the extent to which the music industry resonated with an entire generation, something the fashion industry with all its might falls short on. The raw emotions in the music video, the freedom of Kanye shown through his movement, paired with his Met Gala look which includes the beaded jacket designed in collaboration with Rousteing, come together to inspire, move, and ultimately allow people to make parallels between their emotions watching the video and their emotions towards Balmain. In short, this was a well-executed, thought provoking music video and song, that elevates Balmain’s status in the perspective of the viewer.


A recent documentary revealed Olivier discovering his ancestral roots in Somalia and Ethiopia. His fall 2020 collection depicts the proud roots of his past. Different shades of dusky brown are eloquently assembled. This collection embodies Rousteing’s effortless style that on one hand reflects the beating heart of this couture house but on the other hand peeks a glance at the future.

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Broad shoulders are a classic Balmain look designed to make the wearer feel powerful. Incidentally, the broad shoulders are prominently showcased in Balmain womenswear collections so it brings me great pleasure to see this crafted into the menswear too. Menswear fashion is historically more tame and stale in comparison, having a different edge really makes a piece stand out against the dull norm of menswear fashion.

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Rousteing utilised heavily bright colours for the second half of this collection. Defiantly wayward for a Fall collection but nonetheless immaculately designed. Olivier’s fusion of glamour and couture makes men and women across the world feel classy and powerful. The designer turned social media star has managed to drive Balmain’s popularity through his Instagram. His Balmain army continues to grow as he progressively steers the brand to a new direction.

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