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Balmain on high voltage

Pop maximalist Olivier Rousteing invites Dazed to Paris to find out how he's setting Balmain on fire

It’s a Saturday morning and model Nadja Bender is strutting around the Balmain studio in a short, heavily embroidered Lurex jacquard dress that looks like a glitter bomb exploded on to a One Thousand and One Nights sunset backdrop. For a sexy little party dress, it’s clearly seen some serious hours of meticulous craftsmanship. But how many? “I wanna guess!” Bender says, stroking the fabric. “I’m guessing a dress like this takes three days.” Olivier Rousteing flashes a smile. “A dress like that?” he replies. “It’s more like two weeks.” The dress, it emerges, was put together by artisans in Italy and India. If it didn’t already seem like sparkly magic, it definitely does now. 

Outside, Paris is burning up in a sizzling summer heatwave, and while the air-conditioning is keeping things cool in the studio, Balmain is on fire. Since his appointment as creative director in 2011, Rousteing has amped up the sophisticated couture factor at the storied French house with his infectious energy and badass youthful spirit. Looking at his effortlessly elegant ways with insane pearl-encrusted Fabergé pieces, quilted marble leather and intricate raffia, you feel Pierre Balmain would approve. High-voltage metallic miniskirts might seem light years away from post-war high fashion (the house opened in 1945), but Balmain himself was no stranger to extravagance and dazzling embellishment, showing fox stoles with 12-carat diamond eyes and clouds of Lesage-embroidered confections during his Jolie Madame period. 

“I’m a maximalist and I’m proud of it. I love furs, I love daring, I love sexy”

“It’s my new couture for young, cool girls,” Rousteing says in his soft French tones. “I’m a maximalist and I’m proud of it. I love colours, I love print, I love ornaments, I love architecture, I love bling, I love furs, I love daring, I love sexy. You know, you’re a maximalist when you don’t want to push things down. My emotions in my own life are maximalist. I can love or I can hate.” He takes a drag from a Marlboro Light bummed off Bender, even though he’s recently switched to cigarette électronique. The Rue Pierre Charron studio is buzzing as his young and upbeat team work on SS14, and Britney’s “Scream & Shout” blasts throughout the room. “Every morning when I come into the studio, I put the music super loud,” he says.

Rousteing discusses his work and his inspirations with genuine excitement (“I completely fell in love with Miami. It’s full of colours, richness, parties, sex. All those forbidden things, you know?”), speaking fast and with conviction. “My work days are dreamy days. For me, the essence of Balmain is happiness. It’s joyful. It’s not complicated. It’s more about feeling good. If you want people to feel good in your clothes, you have to feel good creating your clothes. And if you create with happiness you have no boundaries, no limits.” Looking at the floor-to-ceiling boards plastered with collages of recent editorials that line the walls of his office, you feel it. The only thing missing from the colourful and opulent images are some “Boom! Bang! Pow!” bubbles to underscore the heady lavishness of Balmain. 

“My clothes are pop. I do pop maximalist,” he says, pronouncing the last two words slowly and carefully for extra effect. “I’m not the kind of guy that says, ‘Oh, it’s for this crowd only, and only they can understand.’ I hate that. I’m the happiest person when everyone can understand my show. I love when 14-year-olds write me on my Instagram going ‘I love your work, I love you so much for inspiring me.’” 

Over just four seasons, Rousteing has clocked up a large following and some very good reviews. But, he says, “People either love or hate Balmain. It’s not the kind of brand where you say, ‘Oh, that’s cute.’ It’s, ‘Oh, that’s disgusting,’ or, ‘Oh, that’s amazing!’ And that’s the cool thing about my position. I have to assume it and honestly it makes me stronger, day after day. Sometimes I think some people are waiting for me to do full-on minimalism, but don’t expect Olivier Rousteing for Balmain to do the opposite of what he is. You can think, ‘Maybe that’s not my taste,’ but just don’t push my identity down.”

Meanwhile, Bender is lounging around in a black quilted leather bomber from Resort 2014, which, she warns, might go missing later. She has become quite the muse for Rousteing. Her first show was his first winter collection, which she opened, and she’s a close friend of the team, chatting away with the Danes of the group in their mother tongue. “When I see her after four seasons she still has the freshness I saw in her at the first show and the freshness I want to keep in me too,” Rousteing says. “And she’s the most real girl.” With that, she grabs him for an impromptu Instagram session. 

When Christophe Decarnin exited Balmain in 2011 after having induced Swarovski-studded rock’n’roll Balmainia during his nine-year tenure, the then 25-year-old Rousteing was thrown into the spotlight overnight. While he was hardly a rookie – before joining Balmain in 2009 he spent five years at Roberto Cavalli – his life suddenly became a lot more crazy. Now the new normal for the handsome and fresh-faced 27-year-old is hanging out with Rihanna (“she is so fucking cool”), going to the Met Ball with Kate Bosworth and taking selfies with Kim Kardashian. 

“You start to feel really surreal when you meet VIPs you’ve loved since you were ten and they come to your studio and love what you do,” he says, before changing gears. “But then there’s all this other stuff that makes you feel very real. My parents divorced four years ago and they’ve never been in the same room since, so when they came to my show we couldn’t put them close to each other. Instead of thinking about what everyone in the fashion crowd would think of the show I was just like, ‘Oh, I hope my parents won’t fight.’” 

You get a lot of honesty with Rousteing. For all the demi-couture and wildly addictive glamour, he keeps it real. “When I got this job I decided I wanted to share with people who I really am. It’s important to share real things. I want to show people that at Balmain there’s a young designer that can cry, that can smile, that can party and have a life but still make millions and the business is continuing.” His friends, he says, are a major part of what keeps him sane. “They remind me who I am. I’ve seen so many designers fail because they were unhappy with their job and lost in their career. I don’t want to become like that.”  

Rousteing is still processing how much his life has changed. “There’s a lot of business pressure, but when your president is happy it makes you happy because it means you can still create in the most calm and open-minded way. But things have changed a lot in my personal life. Between my first holiday, when no one knew me, and my last holiday, everything changed. When you go to a club, when you meet boys... You don’t know if they like you for what you are or for what you show.”

Love is on his mind. “I feel like I’ve been building my career since I was 18 and not thinking about love or boys. I have all my close friends, I have an amazing job, I travel a lot, and now I feel like I’m starting to miss this little part of my life. That’s the only thing I think about when I wake up in the morning: I need to find love!” I offer up the only piece of crappy dating advice I have: maybe try to meet someone through a hobby? “Yeah. That’s the problem. I had a lot of hobbies before – like sports and running – and now my trainer comes every three days at home. That’s the thing: when you become a creative director, your old normal things become not normal any more, you know?” 

For normality, he heads home. “My parents are still like, ‘Olivier, it’s midnight and you have to be home. Tomorrow we have lunch with your grandparents and you can’t be hungover, and you have to dress well and no leather pants and not down so low.’” The offending leather pants are a pair of black sarouel trousers; today Rousteing is wearing them rolled up, with black Balmain metal-cap boots and a white t-shirt. “When my first shoot came out in US Vogue ma mère was at the doctor and she opened the magazine and was like ‘Oh, my son, you are in US Vogue! But your t-shirt, it’s just so open! It’s too much.’ And I was like, ‘Mum, come to my first show and you’ll see.’ When she came she said, ‘I think the dresses are too short.’ And my dad was like, ‘I think the dresses are perfect’,” he says, snapping his fingers in victory. 

“I was like, ‘Mum, come to my first show and you’ll see.’ When she came she said, ‘I think the dresses are too short.’ And my dad was like, ‘I think the dresses are perfect”

Born in 1985, he grew up in Bordeaux, and was interested in fashion and art from a young age. “I was a spoilt child and I’m adopted – my parents gave me everything. They’re scientific and pragmatic, so they never really understood what I was doing. But they always trust me and push me to do my best.” After studying at the Ecole Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode in Paris for six months, Rousteing got bored and, in 2003, went to Rome to do an internship before heading to Florence with his portfolio. A meeting with Eva Cavalli landed him a job three days later. “When you work at Cavalli you learn that everything is possible. You can have your yacht and if you want it purple, then tomorrow you’ll get your purple yacht.”

Rousteing’s Balmain universe is all about the sumptuous, cool dream, an extension of what the house has always traded in. When Pierre Balmain died in 1982, his long-time associate Erik Mortensen took up the baton of elegance. I tell Rousteing that my uncle, who published Mortensen’s books, once asked the couturier after a show how ladies would sit down in his dresses. Mortensen replied, “Good heavens! You’re not meant to sit down. These dresses are for gliding down a staircase and greeting your guests.” Rousteing lights up. “Of course! That’s exactly what I think too. Sometimes the girls can’t really sit or lift their arms or whatever, but when Balmain girls buy a $25,000 dress they really don’t care. They just go for parties or they wanna feel hot and sexy.” 

In the afternoon, the two of us jump in a car with Bender to hang out in the sun before Rousteing has to be back at the studio and the model flies off on her summer holiday. As we zoom through traffic in a sweltering hot Paris, there’s an intense discussion of celebrity pets. Choupette (Karl Lagerfeld’s cat) and Justin Bieber’s monkey are hot topics, and Instagram pictures are passed around for illustrative purposes. “I wanted to take you to Wanderlust by the river, but it isn’t really fun until later on in the evening,” Rousteing says, so instead we go to Café Charlot, one of his favourite haunts, where discussion turns to Mercy.  

Mercy, of course, is Kim Kardashian’s fluffy kitten that flew off to heaven. Rousteing is a big Kim Kardashian fan – and vice versa. “I met her with Kanye at the Met Ball,” he says, “and she was super shy. She’s really real and true and has a lot of respect for people, which I think is nice because she could be a bitch if she wanted.” They met up again in Paris for an epic dinner with Kris Jenner. “Her mum is so fucking cool. Kim and her mum are both really honest and sincere, but her mum’s a machine. She’s a businesswoman who teaches her kids to be powerful and fierce.” And Kim, he says, speaks to young generations. “She’s the new American dream. Our generation don’t want just glitter any more. They want to know what’s behind that. They want to dream but they want to be able to touch the dream.” 

Rousteing himself seems to be very much living the fantastic dream. Does it ever feel unreal to be so young and in this job? “It’s the kind of question I never ask myself,” he says, sitting in the afternoon sun. “If I start to question it too much I start to get really, really scared. Not because I’m worried about my abilities, but I’m scared to think, ‘What’s next?’ Everything happened so young so what will be next? I’ll get everything I wanted at 25? I don’t want to be too satisfied at 27, because what can I hope for at 30? That’s the only thing that scares me a bit.” But one look at the spectacular scope of his nonchalantly cool universe at Balmain will tell you that Olivier Rousteing is only just getting started. 

On Friday September 27, in the aftermath of his SS14 show, we will be running a live twitter Q&A with Balmain's creative director Olivier Rousteing. Tune in at 5pm UK time on @Dazed_FashionFollow Balmain on TwitterFacebook and Instagram

Taken from the October 2013 issue of Dazed & Confused