Since taking over the creative direction of Balmain nearly nine years ago, Olivier Rousteing has proven that the world is his oyster. To cover what he has achieved—the global brand growth, design identity, inclusive messaging, and far-reaching popularity—would run the length of this review. Thus, the revival of the maison’s haute couture atelier must have been his pearl; a rare and valuable manifestation of beauty, its iridescent nacre akin to layers of workmanship.
And so it’s not for nothing that pearls played a central part in his first couture collection. Right from the start, they appeared as giant Balmain-emblazoned orbs encircling wrists and carried in hand; they were the obvious reference for bulbous skirts molded in leather; and they were applied in bounteous quantities to lattices of ornamentation, from suits to jeans. They were the only reasonable explanation for the models’ filmy white makeup.
In a preview of the collection, which took place next to the busy in-house atelier, Rousteing explained that he sees his haute couture as bridging the Balmain of the past with today. “Of course, the house is known for being edgy and sexy and glamorous. Here, it’s all about bringing back Balmain to the elegance of la France,” he said, adding that the maison’s archive proved essential. “Everything you see will give the sense that it’s taken from the ideas of Mr. Balmain.” This much is clear; the tiers upon tiers of frothy tulle, theatrically pleated fan shapes, and figure-swallowing bows looked nothing like Rousteing as we know and love him.
By adding the new Balmain logo as a graffiti treatment to a superhero peplum or encrusting denim in embellishment, Rousteing said he was answering the question: What is couture in 2019? That his answer missed the mark might be owing to a few understandable considerations. The statement pieces in his ready-to-wear, as well as last year’s 44 François Premier red carpet collection, already approximated couture, leaving him with little creative oxygen. Haute couture also carries such historic, weighty precedent that growing pains will be inevitable. Finally, Rousteing has been in awe of fashion since a very young age, when he marveled over the creations of Yves Saint Laurent for Catherine Deneuve and those of Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. Maybe these exaggerated, reimagined ’80s volumes and ultra-pretty pastels were the fulfillment of a long-held fantasy. “Let’s be dreamy and inspirational,” he enthused during the visit.
There was, alas, nothing much dreamy about the venue—the forthcoming flagship on Rue Saint-Honoré, still in a state of incompletion. This can be forgiven and soon even forgotten. The part that lingers is that, for someone who has formed such a solid connection through his #BalmainArmy, who just launched an app meant to democratize the Balmain experience, and who has ensured that you can’t go four blocks in Paris without being made aware of Balmain, the collection went backward not forward. On the plus side, the line is so exclusive that it won’t change the course of Balmain’s history—or fashion’s.
So for now, one can only ask, Who is the Balmain couture woman? Cue Rousteing’s reply, which can be interpreted as you wish: “It’s an interesting question because we don’t know.”