“Tant que je ne sais pas qui je suis, je ne pourrai pas m’aimer.”
(“As long as I don’t know who I am, I can’t love myself.”) – Olivier Rousteing, Wonder Boy
Olivier Rousteing is well-known for his design work at Balmain, but to profile his entire life would be near impossible. The quote above, taken from his documentary Wonder Boy, outlines the difficulties in understanding the life of this designer.
Adopted at the age of one by a French couple in Bordeaux, Rousteing himself is unsure of his origins and family history. He has always believed he was of African heritage; yet, at times, he questioned if he could really partake in talk of inclusivity and diversity within the fashion industry “without knowing [him]self where [he] was from.”
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Although the documentary reveals that Rousteing made progress in revealing the identity and origins of his parents (a Somali mother and Ethiopian father), it could be argued that it is his craft in the fashion sphere that has defined him as who he is today. So, let us turn towards his work to understand the question: Who is Olivier Rousteing?
Rousteing’s career began at Roberto Cavalli as an intern, before being given the chance to direct the label’s ready-to-wear collection. Balmain noticed his success, appointing Rousteing as Creative Director in 2011. At only 25, this made him the youngest creative director in Paris since Yves Saint Laurent.
At Balmain, his work was fierce, striking, and powerful. Often, his garments were form-fitting, with a range of strategic cut-outs and shoulder pads to empower the female form. The “Balmain girl” is a woman “who knows what she wants and is going to express it”.
His 2021 ‘S/S collection’, which celebrated his 10th anniversary at Balmain, was a homage to his African heritage.
Balmain gave Rousteing a platform to pioneer a new wave of fashion marketing which branded fashion as something anti-elitist. There, he utilised social media to garner the attention of an online demographic – The Balmain Army. Using Instagram to share not only his designs, but daily life working at Balmain, Rousteing quickly garnered a mass following of fans along with a global growth in popularity of the fashion house.
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His choice to share his daily life came with criticism, with people likening him to his friends Kim Kardashian and Kris Jenner. Indeed, some now regard him as a superficial social media star. Still, the vulnerability and transparency he affords his audience in Wonder Boy credits him the title of ‘influencer’ in the best ways.
Certainly, Olivier Rousteing can be described as influential. As a frontrunner on the Paris fashion scene, Rousteing has paved the way for diversity and cultural creatives, pushing his motto that “diversity should be normal.”
Applauded by Massimo Piombini, the Chief Executive of Balmain, in his comment “mixed race, gay, and orphan – he didn’t start out at zero,” it is clear to all that Rousteing has transformed the image of what is possible in France.