With a grand new outpost, Balmain’s creative director dreams up the brand’s latest Melrose Place address
Words by ELIZABETH VARNELL
Photography by KURT ISWARIENKO
Fashion Direction by ALISON EDMOND
A snapshot of a street sign surrounded by blue sky heralded Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing’s recent arrival in Los Angeles. At once his 4.6 million Instagram followers could see that he was standing on Melrose Place, mere steps from the French maison’s first West Coast outpost. “When we talk about the American dream, I think it’s L.A. that we’re talking about,” says Rousteing, dressed head-to-toe in Balmain black while seated on a cerulean blue sofa inside the light-filled shop. “Here you imagine the long road trip to the desert, but you can also see the beautiful mansion in Beverly Hills, a chill Silver Lake neighborhood, the surf in Malibu. There are very few cities in the world where you can associate one place with so many styles,” he adds.
Rousteing, who, at 31, is still one of the youngest talents ever tapped to lead a Parisian fashion house, is also one of the world’s most watched. In addition to designing six collections a year for men and women, as well as posting on his social media platform, he oversees a house with 7.1 million Instagram followers who catalog—and comment on—his every move. He was raised by adoptive parents in Bordeaux, studied at Paris’ École Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode and spent five years honing his eye at Roberto Cavalli. Then he arrived at Pierre Balmain’s maison, a place once known for producing elegant shifts and bell-shaped skirts. If Christophe Decarnin, who helmed the storied couture house from 2007 to 2011, threw open its doors with rocker-chic ripped jeans, safety-pinned T-shirts and padded blazers, Rousteing set the maison ablaze with his heavily embellished, skin-baring bondage dresses and mass digital appeal.
Even as Rousteing stokes a revolution at Balmain, he still looks to the house’s founder—and his archives—for inspiration. The L.A. boutique takes design cues from Pierre Balmain’s Tuscan villa on the island of Elba. For Studio KO designer Olivier Marty, the contrast between the vacation house’s “modernist and ambitious” egg-shaped exterior and the classical designs that fill its rooms served as a leitmotif for the Melrose space. Stark, brushed-black marble floors play off thickly plastered Mediterranean walls. “There were porcelain swans and beautiful vases inside the Elba house,” Marty says, explaining that Rousteing asked for additional elaborate vintage pieces to conjure up a properly residential feel in the boutique.
The space and its adjoining courtyard offer Rousteing a welcome break from the Parisian crucible. “There’s a spirit of youth and freedom here that you have nowhere else—you don’t feel judgement,” he notes. “In Paris, you feel that if you are young, if you are too creative, it can be an obstacle. Here it feels inspiring.” It also helps that many of Rousteing’s friends and members of his international star-studded “Balmain Army”—who are regularly spotted in his designs—live nearby.
The high-profile battalion includes Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kanye West. In 2016, Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, and Naomi Campbell fronted Balmain’s spring campaign, and Rousteing himself recently got behind the camera to shoot Crawford’s 18-year-old son, Presley Gerber, for the fall campaign. And who can forget the many times Rousteing has dressed the Kardashian clan, even recruiting Kendall Jenner, ever a Balmain Army fixture, to tease his massively successful H&M collaboration in 2015? Kim Kardashian West first met Rousteing at the Met Bell in 2013. “We just connected. I just remember him being so genuine,” she says. Kardashian West credits Rousteing with making some of her most memorable looks, including a bachelorette dress for the week of her wedding. “It was this short, long-sleeve tapestry dress with leather and all of these crystals,” she remembers. “And no one has really seen my wedding reception dress,” adds Kardashian West, of another favorite Rousteing designed for her.
One of Rousteing’s early champions, Cher Coulter, also met him that year at the ball, when he dressed Kate Bosworth in a shocking pink minidress that looked downright demure with the addition of three-quarter-length sleeves. The L.A.-based stylist and designer found herself immediately smitten with the Rousteing’s high-low combinations. “The way he mixed denim with more luxurious crafted fabrics was cool-girl heaven to me,” she says. “I like it pared back with no makeup, undone hair and maybe a sneaker.” Beyond his designs, Coulter says Rousteing’s openness draws friends and fans alike. “He’s a true talent and a lovely guy who is very personable, which is why I think he’s become such a sensation,” she says. British transplant Rosie Huntington-Whiteley agrees. She remembers meeting Rousteing before promptly splitting the seam of a Balmain dress during her first fitting. She was mortified. “He laughed, joked and all was forgotten. I’m pretty sure I tried on the entire collection in that one fitting,” she adds.
If his corps helps Rousteing hone designs, he relies on frequent collaborations for fresh ideas. “There’s no plan or strategy to collaborate,” he says. “It just happens—je me nourris, it’s feeding me. It’s nourishment. I’m learning from everything that’s outside my world.” Just this summer, Rousteing created ballet costumes for the Paris Opera, finalized headphones for Beats by Dre (with a campaign fronted by Kylie Jenner), not to mention launched a capsule collection of L’Oréal lipsticks in September. “I can talk to everybody with the collaborations. They can come to the Balmain world in so many different ways,” he explains. Rousteing clearly feels a visceral responsibility to engage with his fans. “I’ve always been an inclusive person. But sometimes fashion can take it as cheap. What they call cheap, I call open-minded. What they call thirsty, I would call generosity. It’s just a different way of seeing things.”
This story originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of C Magazine.