Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain has, by and large, been a little difficult to stomach. This season, it doesn’t get that far before we feel something unpleasant coming out of our throat. The problem could be because we’re not a Kardashian, or one of Mr Rousteing’s 4.3 million IG followers. We just don’t have the constitution that’s strong enough.
You’d think that with so many fans, Mr Rousteing would have had fashioned Balmain into an inspirational and aspirational brand. But if you Google “Balmain is ”, the result may surprise you. Google’s recommendation in the completion of that sentence is as follows: “…owned by”, “…tacky”, “…expensive”, and “…overpriced”. He who oversees the branding of Balmain should be quite concerned.
In the October 2015 review of the Balmain spring/summer 2016 collection for The Washington Post, Robin Givhan wrote that “The French fashion house is always ostentatious and sometimes vulgar.” She also rightly noted that “Those aren’t clothes on the runway, they’re a social media moment.” On his love for ’70s silhouette and ’80s hues, she said, “Other designers mine those decades, but Rousteing does so in a manner that capitalizes on the era’s middle-brow, mass culture.”
If that collection—a hint at what he was to do in his collaboration with H&M (that later proved to be wildly successful)—did not win Ms Givhan’s heart and praise, we’re curious to know what she thinks of Mr Rousteing’s latest. Has the “middle” shifted? Or is tacky still pronounced?
It’s become impossible to talk about Balmain without sounding like we really saw the dregs of Paris Fashion Week. Balmain at the present state reminds us that just because it’s French does not mean it’s fetching. While we maintain that French elegance—indeed, elegance anywhere today—isn’t what it was before (and it shouldn’t be since fashion evolves), Balmain’s brazen and meretricious ways with form and decoration are not pushing French forward the way Jacquemus’s controlled and gentle teasing of proportions is. Balmain’s predecessor Christophe Decarnin may have set in motion the excesses now associated with the house, but it is Mr Rousteing who is driving past the speed limit.
How else does one explain the craziness that went into one outfit? Even the humble T-shirt was given an upgrade, like so many gadgets crucial to our digital lives, with the addition of washing machine-unfriendly chains, beading, sequins and so much more. Mr Rousteing was telling us that piling on is the way forward—the complex and intricate pastiche of animal print and hide, eye-popping jacquards, the never-enough appliqués, the where-to-begin embroideries, the by-now-clichéd metallic studs, and those everywhere fringing. There’s so much fringing (even belts are fringed)—they came in beaded strains, metal chains, leather cords as well—that even curtains in a brothel pale in comparison. Could this be Mr Rousteing showing off what the atelier can really do—his own métiers d’art?
We really wanted to see the art in all of it. But, with some of the jackets, for example, we saw Lucky Plaza, where budget-conscious mamasans go to be outfitted for an evening at the yezonghui (夜总会) or the nightclub. And there were the colours: variations of browns, including what some members of the media optimistically call caramel—shades many store buyers tell us women just won’t look at. Read: can’t sell. The thing is, collectively, everything looked like they’ve spent too much time in mud and sun. Sure, we understand it has to do with the tribal vibe that Mr Rousteing was communicating and you’re not wrong for thinking of Africa, but this was the Serengeti by way of Calabasas!
That Mr Rousteing is creating Calabasas chic in Paris is understandable: you know where his biggest fans come from. Sometimes we feel bad for Mr Rousteing. He’s put so much effort into the outfits (these are not simple cut and sew) and they still turn out wanting. All that excess and still deficient. What’s missing? Maybe it’s that modern rarity called class.