WORDS BY KATIE HILL
Notable for its powerful and confident aesthetic, Balmain has been empowering a fashion-conscious clientele since the brand’s launch in 1946. Emerging from the occupation of Paris, Pierre Balmain’s eponymous label played a part in revolutionising French style. Balmain’s first show in October 1945 preceded Christian Dior’s 'New Look' by two years and featured long, bell-shaped skirts with small waists. By 1947, Balmain had become a global brand and Pierre flew to Australia to launch a specially designed Australian Collection. The house continues to be influenced by Pierre’s ‘Jolie Madame’ style, and tailored Balmain jackets retain the iconic silhouettes of their 1940s predecessors.
The Oscar de la Renta Era
Between Pierre’s long reign and today, Balmain has been led by seven more Heads of Design. Most notably, Oscar de la Renta brought his own brand of elegance with his highly-celebrated first couture collection in 1994. Ultra-feminine and borrowing from the pages of fashion history, de la Renta’s designs — though beautiful — did not take the same risks as the Balmain we see today. While there may have been quiet times in the history of Balmain, the brand received a proverbial kick up the couture-clad backside in 2011, when 25-year-old “wunderkind”, Olivier Rousteing, was made Head Designer.
Who is Olivier Rousteing?
At 18, he started as a graduate intern at Roberto Cavalli and worked through the ranks to become one of the Head Designer Peter Dundas’ star protégés. Rousteing credits his work with Dundas for teaching him about glamour. ‘Peter had designed costumes for the opera, so he has this culture of extravagance’, he said later. Known even then as a fashion sensation, 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 end up bringing to Balmain.
Rousteing’s first collection for Balmain in SS12 immediately drew plaudits from the critics. Described by Rousteing as ‘something a bit Mexican, bullfighter’s costumes and wallpaper from Vegas’, the fashion press was 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, fixed couture silhouettes. At the other end of the scale, Rousteing also focused his attention on streetwear, launching the diffusion line, Pierre Balmain, and bringing his unique aesthetic to casual dressing.
Olivier Rousteing: Instagram
Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain is not one that could have happened before he took over — it’s a fashion house built on its social media success, which is clearly not a bad thing when you look at the label’s revenue. Balmain became the first French fashion label to surpass 1 million Instagram followers. The well-known #balmainarmy now includes some of the biggest names in not just the modelling world, but also the Kardashian world. Whilst the association with the famous reality TV family might be off-putting for some, it has certainly put Balmain and Rousteing back on the map.
Rousteing’s energising effect on the world of fashion extends beyond social networks, with his raw talent and relative youth captivating the attention of the world’s media and other fashion houses. From the bold print pairings of SS12, the colour-blocked fur jackets of AW14 and the audacious leather-on-leather designs of the 2015 resort collection — Rousteing constantly pushes boundaries and sets new ones. Today, the brand is still a go-to for sharply tailored double-breasted blazers and coats as well as, of course, embellished mini dresses and skin-tight pencil skirts.
The Balmain style, according to its Creative Directors past and present, has always been about preserving the vision of its founder — to design clothes for the jolie madame. Successive designers have bent, twisted and reinterpreted this ethos, but the house’s identity and reputation for glamour and fine design have remained intact. Today, Olivier Rousteing’s incarnation of Balmain has the same dedication to producing trailblazing style, but with just a little more fierceness. So, pledge your allegiance to the Balmain army and shop our selection here.
For more inspiring French fashion, check out our article on The Legacy of Karl Lagerfeld.