brandsWednesday, November 3, 2021

Balmain: the history of a French powerhouse





Synonymous with strong, maximalist glamour, Balmain has been empowering women since the label’s inception in 1946. Fans of the French brand are even called the Balmain Army: dressed in modern-day power pieces — think strong shoulders, striking silhouettes and a lot of hardware — the Balmain girl sets trends and walks with purpose. Here, we chart the history of the label, the impact of current creative director Oliver Rousteing, and the latest limited-edition capsule collection inspired by Netflix’s new Western, ‘The Harder They Fall’, produced by Jay-Z.


The history of Balmain


Founded in post-war Paris, Pierre Balmain’s eponymous house was central to revolutionising French style. Balmain’s debut show in October 1945 preceded Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ by two years and welcomed curve-enhancing silhouettes into the mix, such as bell-shaped skirts nipped in at the waist. By 1947, Balmain had become an influential global powerhouse, at the forefront of fashion’s new liberated direction. Pierre Balmain’s ‘Jolie Madame’ style codes remain central to the house’s DNA today, with the brand’s signature tailored Balmain jackets retaining the iconic shape of their 1940s predecessors.


Between Pierre Balmain’s long reign and today, Balmain has been led by seven more Heads of Design. Renowned Dominican designer Oscar de la Renta worked his own take on elegance into the house in 1994 via his highly celebrated debut couture collection. Leaning into a more conventional take on femininity, de la Renta’s designs — though beautiful — did not take the same risks as the Balmain we see today.

Olivier Rousteing: Balmain’s wunderkind


In 2011, at the age of just 25, Olivier Rousteing joined Balmain as Head Designer. His intent: to re-energise Pierre Balmain’s design tropes for the modern woman.


At 18, Rousteing started his career as a graduate intern at Roberto Cavalli and worked through the ranks to become one of Head Designer Peter Dundas’ star protégés. Soon recognized as a visionary, Rousteing’s collections for Roberto Cavalli helped the designer balance his natural inclination for the avant-garde with the label’s reputation for opulence — a tension he would continue to master at Balmain. 


Rousteing’s first collection for Balmain in spring/summer 2012 immediately drew plaudits from the critics. Described by Rousteing as ‘something a bit Mexican — bullfighter’s costumes and wallpaper from Vegas’, critics were worried that the young designer’s predilection for gauche patterns would push the looks into the realm of tackiness. 


However, Rousteing also noted his constraints: ‘I wanted to respect the couture heritage of Balmain and what Oscar de la Renta did for the house.’ He achieved this by applying his outlandish patterns to the house’s classic couture silhouettes. In addition to this, Rousteing also focused his attention on streetwear — launching the diffusion line, Pierre Balmain — and working his avant-garde vision into the realm of more casual dressing.


In a surprising documentary released in 2019, Rousteing took centre stage in the aptly named ‘Wonder Boy’ – a short film, directed and produced by Anissa Bonnefont, that saw him go in search of his roots. ‘There are many documentaries of designers in their office talking about fashion and that is one side of me,’ Rousteing explained in the film. ‘But the other side of [me] is sometimes really lonely and wants to understand where he comes from. It was hard but I wanted to deliver the most authentic, spontaneous and real journey I could. Through research, I discovered my Ethiopian and Somalian ethnicity and I discovered that my mother was really young when she had me and she was not necessarily consenting. No matter where you come from, you can discover where you want to go and that is my message at the end of this movie.


'I never plan my future because there are so many things happening in society, and so many things happening in my life,’ he continued, ‘but I have dreams. I hope that 10 years from now, I will wake up the same way I do now, with a smile and with the happiness of creating and feeling free. I know it sounds cheesy but sometimes in fashion it’s easy to forget yourself and try to please a certain crowd. And it’s easy to be put in a box. What I have learnt is that the most important thing is to be satisfied with who you are.’


The Balmain x Netflix capsule


Directed by Jeymes Samuel, Netflix’s new Western ‘The Harder They Fall’ — produced by Jay-Z and starring Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors and Regina King — premiered at the BFI London Film Festival on 6 October 2021. Olivier Rousteing collaborated with the film’s costume designer, Antoinette Messam, on some of the looks, and was also inspired to create a new limited-edition Balmain capsule, available to shop on FARFETCH now.


'Everyone, everywhere, all across the world grew up watching American Westerns,’ explains Rousteing in an exclusive interview with FARFETCH. ‘I have such great memories of watching them with my parents when I was just a kid growing up in Bordeaux. [But] too many of those legendary films, with their all-white casting for lead actors, ignored the incredible true history of the 19th-century West — when so many newly freed slaves headed West in hope of a better life. Historians have pointed out that one-third of American cowboys were African-Americans. To finally have a film that reflects that fact is long overdue.’ 


'What I think is important for audiences to know is that Black cowboys existed in the Victorian West — a fact that was rarely seen in the Westerns we grew up watching before the 1993 movie Posse,’ agrees Antoinette Messam. ‘Westerns prior to this had one or two Black actors in them and they were rarely the lead. Watching this film, young people will be able to see themselves as cowboys, saloon owners, merchants and families that owned their own land. This is not a Western about Black people, it’s a Western that just happens to have Black people in it. Bottom line: representation matters.’


With its huge cultural significance, the movie was the perfect addition to the Balmain portfolio. ‘Designing a collection for Paris Fashion Week and designing a limited-edition capsule are both built on the same fashion and design fundamentals,’ says Rousteing. ‘Both are all about creating one cohesive and distinctive whole, since I need to create something that is both clearly singular while continuing within the distinct Balmain trajectory.’ In true Balmain fashion, The Harder They Fall capsule includes power-look jackets, embellished with fringes to stay within the theme, and suede iterations of the B-Buzz bag range.


Focus on: Balmain’s new season


Staying true to his ‘Balmain trajectory’, Rousteing’s full fall/winter 2021 collection — available to shop on FARFETCH — consists of utility elements mixed with the brand’s all-out glamour silhouettes. A dream come true for the Balmain Army, the key looks for the season come in khaki green, embellished with signature gold buttons and hardware and perfectly paired with the brand’s iconic B-Buzz bags, plus metallic knitted separates accentuated by vivid neon accents. Rousteing designed his FW21 looks to be mixed and matched with the ‘The Harder They Fall’ capsule — if you can get your hands on the pieces before they sell out.


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