When Olivier Rousteing dresses a woman, she becomes a member of what he winsomely refers to as the ‘Balmain Army’. He has only once met with resistance—from his grandmother. “I don’t think she likes body-con dresses that are really tight,” Rousteing explained. But perhaps grand-mère can find something for herself in the archives. Pierre Balmain, the eminent couturier, was kind to his women’s torments and took pains to flatter them with a buckram implant or a strategic dart. Sophia Loren was a Balmain fan, as was Katharine Hepburn, who sometimes hung up her trousers and despite herself, took rare pleasure in the artifice of womanhood. When Brigitte Bardot wore ivory Balmain, she sidestepped vampish infamy and transformed into one of the swan-like idols of the genre.
Just as well, Rousteing knows when a beautiful woman with attitude is in need of a coat of armour. He is most closely associated with the Kardashians, the behemoths of reality television. Kim wears his clothes with aplomb. Her half sister, Kendall Jenner, made her Paris runway debut at Rousteing’s show. They edge into each other’s Instagram snapshots, a tool that Rousteing uses to connect with his fans as he “grows up with the house”. He thinks that “fashion people talk to themselves too much”. What Rousteing has done instead, is weaponise Instagram as a sounding board for instant feedback from fans and critics alike. He demystifies the inner workings of a couture atelier—fashion’s equivalent of a papal election chamber—by posting pictures of himself, typically around the studio, at a party or in bed.
What Rousteing has done instead, is weaponise Instagram as a sounding board for instant feedback from fans and critics alike.
Pierre Balmain opened his couture house in 1945. He became one of the first post-war designers to seduce women back into corsets. His Jolie Madame style defined by flowering skirts, a cinched waist, and sculpted shoulders were a hit. Balmain’s technique was always audacious, but over the years his designs became more sugary, even chaste. When the daughters of patrician families joined the Left Bank persuasion, hiking up their society gowns to put on Saint Laurent boots, Balmain’s celebrity waned. But the old master sired a legacy that seems almost genetic to Rousteing. They were both jaded academic students who discovered the tonic power of fashion. Balmain, like Rousteing, also ushered in women who were accustomed to high living but maybe not high fashion. The couturier dressed the First Lady of Nicaragua for the occasional gala, while his diplomacy with Queen Sirikit of Thailand was less well received by the couture club.
The Balmain Army has received similarly dismissive treatment. Yet Rousteing is adamant about “breaking taboos” and rankling the people who are “old in their thinking”. As a person of colour leading a major luxury house, Rousteing is ardent about racial diversity. He comments that his type of woman is “Asian, she’s black, she’s Russian, she’s European, she’s American—all the women of the world are part of the Balmain Army!” She exudes animal confidence with a vengeance, perhaps in solidarity with the original Balmain girls whose pedigree and quasi-mystical beauty kept them hidden in salons. “When [my girls] go to the club they will be looking for the man in the middle of the crowd and grab him,” Rousteing declared, “she is on safari and she’s a lion”.
Couture houses have traditionally campaigned to correct women’s flaws, but Rousteing appears to be bored of remedial fashion. He puts the Balmain body on full display, his girls are mostly leggy and buxom, with a crystalline face, determined chin and shapely haunches. They move with the invincible feline swagger of his totem animal. Rousteing often assumes a custodian role over his women and flaunts their sexual potency without sacrificing their sexual autonomy. His predecessor, Christophe Decarnin, was insistent on the ruthlessness of the mini skirt, but Rousteing rarely cuts a hem above the knee. “I think when you wear Balmain you can’t have sex that fast, even though everybody thinks like that.” The pantsuit is a Balmain staple for his women because “she’s like a man at the same time”.
The ideal Balmain man might be Kanye West, a friend and sometimes model, who shares Rousteing’s taurine stature and his disdain for conformity. Both wear slick black as confidently as they do vivid blues, oranges and purples. To those who claim that Kanye’s populist appeal discredits him to a couture wardrobe, Rousteing refutes, “Kanye and Kim have this new French taste. They are the new French couple.” France’s last foreign queen, it should be noted, was also its most spendthrift. Marie Antoinette’s luxuriant tastes earned her the nickname ‘Madame Deficit’. She wore a feathery white chemise up to the guillotine. When Kim Kardashian wore virginal Balmain, they put her on the cover of Vogue.
Image 01. Copyright Sølve Sundsbø/Art + Commerce/Raven & Snow.