When Olivier Rousteing was hired as creative director of the French luxury label Balmain in 2011, the fashion establishment wasn't sure what to think. He was a relatively unknown 25-year-old person of color in Paris, a city whose biggest brands tend to be fronted by white men many years his senior. But in the years that followed, Rousteing quickly proved his ability to overcome any odds that might have been stacked against him. With the help of his fresh design vision, thorough embrace of social media and large circle of celebrity friends (here's lookin' at you, Kardashian krew), Rousteing has led Balmain to greater profitability and popularity than anyone foresaw.
On Tuesday night, Rousteing was the latest (and youngest-ever) guest in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's conversation series "The Atelier," hosted by journalist Alina Cho. Rousteing used the hour-long conversation to chat about being an adopted minority kid in a white family, the importance of diversity on the runway and the unintentionally risqué way he came out to his grandpa. Of course, he managed to sneak in a few onstage selfies with his host and the proud members of the #BalmainArmy in attendance before the end of the evening — as anyone with cheekbones and a pout that perfect has the right to do.
Read on for highlights from Rousteing and Cho's conversation, which you can find in full on the Met's website soon.
On growing up adopted in a white family
Rousteing radiates confidence now, but being adopted as a mixed-race child in a white family had its difficulties. "I carried around my pajamas when I was a kid because I was really insecure and worried that they would bring me back to the orphanage," he said. Although he doesn't identify as black or white — "just human" — a younger Rousteing faced bullying from kids who called him "bastard" and teachers who sometimes doubted his capabilities because of his skin color. "I spoke a lot with my parents about it, and I was like, 'I don't want to believe in that kind of world,'" Rousteing said. Luckily, Rousteing's adoptive family was very supportive of his endeavors, even when he'd later do things like attend — and ultimately drop out of — law school.
On emphasizing diversity in the #BalmainArmy
Though this set of experiences may have been difficult, it also made Rousteing particularly sensitive to diversity issues in the fashion industry. As a result, he's become known for some of the most racially diverse runway and campaign castings to come out of any French house.
"I think sometimes the fashion industry talks a lot, but they don't act a lot, regarding diversity," Rousteing said. "I think the industry needs to start working harder. When you see critics talking about a show that has no [models of] color and they call it 'modern'? I wouldn't call that modern, I'm sorry. We have the chance to represent the world and how we want that world to be."
On killing the social media game (and translating it into sales)
With four million followers on his personal Instagram and five and a half million following Balmain, Rousteing is the most-followed designer in the world on the social platform — and was one of the first designers to open a personal account. While this seems like an obvious step now, his desire to wholeheartedly embrace social media received pushback from Balmain executives at the outset. "The question was, 'Can you mix luxury with digital? Can you sell a $20,000 dress and at the same time have a digital influence that talks to a crowd that might not be able to afford your clothes?' And I was like, 'I think that's what is modern.'"
The result of his attitude has been a positive one: Balmain does indeed reach a wider audience, meaning that more affordable collections, like the one Rousteing released through H&M last year, sell out immediately. In addition, Rousteing announced his hope to focus more on accessories in the future in the interest of continuing to create pieces that are accessible to a larger portion of his fan base.
On his many celebrity pals
Rousteing's ability to leverage star power in his campaigns is widely noted, and it's not uncommon to see Kim, Kanye and the rest of the Kardashian-West clan sitting front row at his shows (or to have a Jenner or Hadid sister walking the runway). While these associations are certainly strategic, Rousteing tends to describe his relationships with celebrities primarily in terms of affection rather than as business partnerships. Meeting Kim Kardashian at the Met Ball, for instance, signaled the realization of the "biggest crush of [his] life."
"I will never dress someone I don't believe in, someone whose music or world I don't like," he asserted. "The people that I dress are people that I love and that inspire me."
On that nude French magazine cover
In February 2015, Rousteing covered the French magazine Têtu wearing nothing but a stack of bracelets. Though he acted bashful when the image of the cover was projected onto a large screen behind him during the talk, he explained that the idea behind the cover story was to profile him not as the designer at Balmain, but as himself, sans his connection — literally or figuratively — to clothing. "It was the first time with a French magazine where I was talking about my homosexuality, my childhood, the racism I encountered in France," he said.
Though he and his publicists weren't quite sure how the fashion world would react to such a risqué cover, Rousteing was even more interested in how his family responded. Rousteing laughingly shared the story of his grandfather going to buy bread at the corner store, only to be confronted by a nude image of his grandson on a gay glossy at checkout. "I confessed my secrets in there, and [my family] opened the magazine and they saw," he said. "But I just wanted to help people that are afraid to be who they are. You can be gay, you can be black, you can be from an orphanage — just believe in you. That was the message."
On launching his own line
One of Cho's final questions of the night inquired of Rousteing: "If there was another fashion house you could work for, what would it be?" After giving her a bit of a hard time— "I don't know if this question or the naked cover is worse!" — Rousteing finally answered seriously and simply: "Mine." If the explosion of applause and affectionate heckling from the audience were any indication, Rousteing will have an enthusiastic consumer base if and when he decides to make the leap to starting his own label.