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brandsWednesday, 10 February 2021

Balmain: The History of a French Powerhouse

WORDS BY KATIE HILL

ADDITIONAL WORDS BY ASHLEIGH GRIBBON

 

Synonymous with strong, maximalist glamour, Balmain has been empowering women since the label’s inception in 1946. 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 – think bell-shaped skirts nipped in at the waist. By 1947, Balmain had become an influential global powerhouse, at the fore 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 silhouettes of their 1940s predecessors.

 

The Oscar de la Renta Era

 

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 wunderkind

 

In 2011, at the age of just 25, Olivier Rousteing joined Balmain as Head Designer. The visionary’s intent: to reenergise 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. Rousteing credits Dundas for teaching him about glamour. ‘Peter had designed costumes for the opera, so he has this culture of extravagance,’ he explains. 

 

Soon recognised 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 center-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 explains. ‘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,’ continues Rousteing, ‘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.’

 

Rousteing's muses

 

In a special collaboration to celebrate US Black History Month, Olivier Rousteing collaborated with FARFETCH and Nataal — the media platform dedicated to African fashion, art, music and culture — to bring to life the Black style icons who shaped him. Grace Jones, Prince and Beyoncé were among his highlights.

 

'Grace’s power and fearlessness is reflected in the fact that she was one music’s first female artists to play with androgynous dress codes,’ notes Rousteing. ‘I love that hers is not an obvious glamour. I also love her collaboration with Azzedine Alaïa in the 1980s, which helped me understand the power that a true muse can hold for a designer.

 

'Like Grace Jones, Prince melded men’s and women’s wardrobes together at a time when too many people were quick to judge others for their unconventional choices,’ he continues. ‘Prince never stopped pushing boundaries — he made it clear he didn’t care what others thought. In many ways, today’s gender-fluid spirit in fashion can be traced back to iconic images of Prince. For example, I remember those incredible Avedon shots of him from the 1980s and 1990s.

 

'Beyoncé is such an icon, such an inspiration and, most importantly, she is a great friend… She has taught me so much,’ Rousteing notes. ‘We spent a lot of time together when she did Coachella [Balmain dressed the singer for her performances at the 2018 festival], which is something I’ll always remember, and I was so proud when she wore Balmain to cast her vote for Biden last November. Her storytelling is incredible. And, on top of all that, she’s an inspiring activist, working for needed changes.’

 

The Balmain army

 

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 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. 

 

Some of the biggest names in the world, including the Kardashians, now use the widely recognised #balmainarmy hashtag. ‘I created the #balmainarmy hashtag to fight for diversity,’ explains Rousteing of the social community he’s shaped. ‘I have seen many obstacles in my career, and when I started at Balmain people asked me why I was bringing hip-hop music, or Kim Kardashian, or social media to a French luxury house. So I thought, this is not an evolution — it’s a revolution, and for that I need an army. Now the army has grown to become a Balmain Nation. It’s a community and I don’t feel the need to fight any more.’

 

Rousteing’s energising effect on the world of fashion extends beyond social channels, 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 spring/summer 2012, the colour-block faux-fur jackets of autumn/winter 2014 and the audacious leather-on-leather designs of the 2015 resort collection — Rousteing constantly pushes boundaries and defines new fashion frontiers. 

 

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. For spring/summer 2021, Rousteing translates the Balmain archive into an optimistic collection full of craftsmanship, color and joy. ‘Monsieur Balmain started the brand just after WWII with the goal of giving strength to women,’ he explains. ‘So I wanted to bring his original idea of the ‘Jolie Madame’ into 2021 to see how it could be. At the same time, I brought back his PB labyrinth monogram from the early 70s. After Monsieur Balmain, we were a house that slept until Oscar de la Renta became creative director in the 90s. In that time many things were forgotten so it is my responsibility to revisit the identity of the brand.’

 

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 reworked, redefined and reinterpreted this mantra, but the house’s identity and reputation for glamour and fine design remains strongly intact. Today, Rousteing’s incarnation of Balmain has the same dedication to producing trailblazing style, but with just a little more fierceness. Pledge your allegiance to the Balmain army and shop our selection here.

 

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