olivier rousteing is leading his balmain army into a new age of egalitarianism
We speak to the 28-year-old Creative Director of Balmain about Kim, Kanye, and fighting for a brave new world.
In September last year, i-D went backstage at the Balmain show and struck up a conversation with Kris Jenner, who was overseeing a photo call for members of her family with Olivier Rousteing. In keeping with magazine tradition, Kris winked for a snapshot that was posted to i-D's Instagram. It generated comments such as, "Oxygen thief," "Stop lowering yourself," "Trash," and various other trolling directed at Kris and i-D. Outside, before the show, Kim Kardashian had been shoved to the ground by a so-called prankster, the brutality of which stirred up a chaotic, nervy atmosphere in the crowd. It was intensified when Michael and Janet Jackson's Scream started throbbing through the speakers, remixed with Kanye West's Black Skinheads to a degree of expressive discomfort that made this show's statement heavier than any other that season.
"'Stop pressurin' me.' That was perfect," Olivier Rousteing says, throning behind his power desk at the Balmain ateliers months later. "What's funny in fashion is that they love to put you really high up only to destroy you after," he shrugs. It was the sentiment behind his show; a kind of disillusion with an industry he felt had forsaken him in his pursuit of his own personality, both creatively and politically. "This show was way more myself. If I had to keep going like my first show, I would quit fashion really fast. I was trying to please too many people." His issues were - and are - with those who praised the 25-year-old Rousteing as a fashion prodigy, but haven't been able to accept the now 28-year-old designer's irreverent social media promotion of himself and Balmain, and his earnest and outspoken vision for a socially conscious industry that embraces all women and races.
"I don't want to become a prostitute of fashion," Olivier says doggedly, a black beanie hat covering half his face like some badass fashion mutineer. The public's treatment of Kris and Kim at the show couldn't have illustrated Rousteing's perspective more explicitly. In his show notes, he wrote about the social epidemic of censorship - inspired by Instagram's banning of a topless picture of Rihanna - and the power he sees in the famous women with whom he surrounds himself: businesswomen such as the Kardashian-Jenners, who are popularly condemned as 'talentless', 'media whorish' and worse, due to their reality TV fame. (Scroll through the comments of any Daily Mail story for examples.) "I challenge everybody to stay in front of the camera an entire day and actually make their life interesting. That's called talent," Olivier contends.
What happened at the Balmain show was a powerful reminder of how our post-feminist world still turns a blind eye to certain kinds of misogyny, as long as it can be justified by the—apparently—low-culture status of the famous women in question. With a simple smile and a wink from Kris Jenner, this cultural chauvinism played out on i-D's Instagram before our own eyes, summing up the reason this family has become a kind of spokes-clan for Rousteing's Balmain. He applauds Kris Jenner for raising a mixed-race family in traditionalist California, for building international careers for her many children, and for breaking down the barriers, which women of a certain age are still faced with in modern society. "She's really open-minded and she's always keeping her eyes on the new world and what's gonna happen," Olivier says. "She's not a follower."
Olivier's astute opinions are part of an all-embracing approach to life and fashion so determined it borders on the radical. "I think women are way smarter," he says, quite casually. "I think my mum controls everything in the couple, and she was fucking smart. She made my dad believe so many things and I think it's pretty interesting to see that. I think women are running the world now, and there's nothing wrong with it. I really believe in a confident and really strong woman, and I love the fact that the guy is actually kind of a little puppy for the lady." (He tackles his menswear, in case anyone is wondering, from the image of his ideal boyfriend.) Rousteing's fierce feminism goes hand-in-hand with the women he admires: Iman, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, Naomi Campbell. Women who embody a certain ferocious curvaceousness or authoritative Amazonian might.
"Racism and being close-minded. That's what makes me scream," Olivier continues. He harbours anger towards a fashion industry he believes stands in the way of diversity, and is run by people too old to know what the real world looks like. "If you look around you, how many black people are there in the streets? Why do you not represent that on your catwalks? Because you want to apparently look cool and modern and young, but modern means you talk to modern people that actually live the new culture," he says. "Talking about modernity, you need to open your range on people." And as far as the industry's attempts at mixed casts go, Rousteing isn't impressed, either. "Having just two black girls in a show is not called chic," he glooms. "It's called vulgar."
Olivier's affiliation with Kim Kardashian - whom he featured in his spring/summer 15 men's campaign alongside Kanye West, he explains, because of their rare status as a mixed-race power couple - has catapulted Balmain into pop cultural super fame, but lost Rousteing some high-culture followers along the way. "If you wanna be blind, you're gonna be blind. If you don't wanna see the power of the couple and the power of what they give to the world today, it's fine. I don't care," he says, his insistence accelerating with each word. "Today, dressing Kim is like opening the door to fashion to different people. If we work on the same front row for the next five years without having anybody that can actually communicate something to people that aren't already inside the room, fashion is gonna die."
Rousteing is uncompromisingly anti-snobbish. The more the industry frowns upon his selfie-centric instagramming - much in the unapologetic vein of Kim's - the more determined he gets, continuing to build a power platform, whose 950,000-plus following easily outdoes those of most fashion magazines. "I love when people comment, like, 'Stop taking selfies and start sketching.' I just laugh now. I have a big public that actually wants to see my fish face and I can post me on holidays, me hungover, me working—that's my real life," he says. "Yes, I've turned myself into a celebrity, a person who actually embraces my brand, which is about glamour and confidence. I'm a confident person. I love glam, I love sexiness, I love partying, and I love working." Spoken, you might say, like a true child of the revolution.
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Daniel Jackson
Fashion Director Alastair McKimm
Hair Holli Smith at Total Management using Bumble and bumble
Nail technician Rica Romain at LMC
Photography assistance Jake Merrill
Lighting assistance Karen Goss
Styling assistance Katelyn Gray, Lauren Davis, Xenia Settel
Make-up assistance Mami Iizuka, Takashi Ashizawa, Ren Nobuko
Production Nikki Stromberg at M.A.P
Retouching Gloss Studio
Model Isabella Emmack at DNA
Isabella wears all clothing Balmain