Balmain’s golden boy, Olivier Rousteing, innovates

“Jewellery has always been part of my aesthetic, as you can imagine. It’s part of my DNA,” says Olivier Rousteing. Behind his large black marble desk atop Balmain’s headquarters in Paris’ 8th arrondissement, he rolls up the sleeves of his artfully shredded Breton knit to reveal forearms decorated with stacks of bangles and bracelets.

“This, [he gestures to his right] is Balmain costume jewellery. This is my Rolex, this is my Cartier…” On her other arm is a more modest and perhaps sentimental selection, including memorabilia from her rare moments of rest and a necklace of black wooden beads given to her by his father. “I like to mix my jewelry with what I have, say, on vacation. I’m in Sicily or Mykonos or Los Angeles and I’m just going to buy something that’s not too expensive.

This mix of hard luxury tempered with accessibility has long shaped Rousteing’s approach at Balmain, where he has sought to open up to the world of fashion since being named the first black creative director of a major fashion house. French luxury in 2011, at only 25 years old. turnover has increased sevenfold since Rousteing joined, a milestone at a time when the rate of change in creative direction in luxury fashion is so high that many barely have a chance to unpack .

On the one hand, Rousteing positioned the house as a palace of high-octane, star-powered glamour, courting celebrity friends such as Kim Kardashian and Rihanna – who both starred in their first high fashion campaigns. at Balmain – as well as former France’s First Lady Carla Bruni, who closed the catwalk for her 10th anniversary show in 2021. On the other, he raised the curtains on fashion’s inner sanctum, opening invitations to some of his shows from the usual 500 or so industry types to 6,000 fans and renaming the event an annual Balmain festival.

Balmain Emblem beads necklace in yellow gold, onyx beads, diamonds and tsavorite, £13,000, balmain.com © Alex Brunet & Olga Varova for the FT

Large Balmain Emblem cuff in yellow gold, lacquer, onyx, diamonds and tsavorite, £26,000; Balmain Emblem signet ring, in yellow gold, onyx, lacquer, set with diamonds and tsavorite, £15,000; Balmain Labyrinth Frieze ring in yellow gold, £2,000; Balmain Labyrinth Frieze pavé ring in yellow gold set with diamonds, £6,400, all at balmain.com © Alex Brunet & Olga Varova for the FT

So it only makes sense that Rousteing would add another category to its Balmain portfolio with the first-ever high jewelry collection in the brand’s 77-year history – and its timing couldn’t be better. McKinsey predicts that high-end branded fine jewelry will grow at a rate of 8-12% per year between 2019 and 2025, about three times faster than the entire luxury goods sector. With the vast majority of sales still going to unbranded items, the category is ripe for a major luxury takeover. Since early 2019, LVMH has acquired Tiffany & Co for $15.8 billion, Richemont has bought Buccellati from Chinese group Gangtai, and fashion houses Gucci, Prada and Giorgio Armani have launched high jewelry lines.

In front of the designer, next to a bottle of Perrier Citron and a pack of cigarettes, an edited selection from the new collection, consisting of 32 rings, necklaces, brooches, earrings and bracelets (most of which are already on loan to glossy magazines for photographing) with prices ranging from £1,600 to £31,000. The style is typically coppery, edgy yet surprisingly elegant, crafted in yellow gold, onyx and diamonds, the only color being an electric chlorophyll green tsavorite dotted here and there. Each piece is made with 18k gold recycled or certified by the Responsible Jewelery Council and traceable gemstones. The French workshops chosen to manufacture the jewelry are also RJC certified to ensure greater transparency during the manufacturing process.

Sunglasses, pendant, onyx beads, rings, wrist watch and bracelets

Left to right: Oliver Rousteing’s own sunglasses; Balmain Labyrinth Frieze pendant in yellow gold, £1,700; Balmain Emblem beads necklace in yellow gold, onyx beads, diamonds and tsavorite, £13,000; Balmain Labyrinth PB single earring in yellow gold set with a diamond, £2,000; Balmain Emblem signet ring, in yellow gold, onyx, lacquer, set with diamonds and tsavorite, £15,000; Balmain Labyrinth PB pavé signet ring in yellow gold set with diamonds £9,800; Balmain Labyrinth Frieze ring in yellow gold, £2,000; Balmain Labyrinth Frieze pavé ring in yellow gold set with diamonds, £6,400; Oliver Rousteing’s own watch; Large Balmain Emblem cuff in yellow gold, lacquer, onyx, diamonds and tsavorite, £26,000; Balmain Labyrinth Frieze pavé bangle in yellow gold set with diamonds, £14,000, all Balmain available at balmain.com © Alex Brunet & Olga Varova for the FT

With no high jewelry archives to draw from, Rousteing drew inspiration from the house’s past ready-to-wear designs, with the intention of creating future heirlooms. “Balmain is glamour, it’s also timelessness, this feeling of heritage from a house built in 1945 by Monsieur Balmain after the Second World War. There is a feeling of couture in my clothes, of uniqueness and timelessness, and what more than a line of jewelry to create something timeless? Rousteing asks. “My [hope] with these jewels will be that someone will buy them and in 10 years will give them to their child or grandchild. It will be for me the greatest pride, bring a memory to a family and become a legacy.

The collection revolves around key house codes such as the coat of arms, often set into the gold buttons that finish the house’s signature blazers. In the jewelry offering, it can be found on delicate medallion-shaped discs that punctuate the finer pieces of the collection or stamped on chunky signet rings and cuffs. There is an opulent hatch accented by a jewel at its peaks, first seen in Rousteing’s celebrated Fabergé-inspired collection in 2012. The house’s labyrinth monogram, reminiscent of a Greek key motif, first introduced by founder Pierre Balmain in 1970 in a nod to French Renaissance gardens, extends the length of bracelets, wraps around the finger or is abbreviated to simple pendants or earrings. Finally, the collection’s on-trend necklace, part gold chain, part jet black pearls interrupted by a focal point coat of arms, was inspired by Rousteing’s father’s wooden bead bracelet.

“What I love about this collection is that it’s genderless,” adds Rousteing. “I think modernity is not in the design. For me, modernity is a way of thinking. Because what may be modern for you may not be for someone else and, I must say, [I’m not just talking about] jewelry is related to everything.

Olivier Rousteing’s own watch; Large Balmain Emblem cuff in yellow gold, lacquer, onyx, diamonds and tsavorite, £26,000; Balmain Emblem signet ring, in yellow gold, onyx, lacquer, set with diamonds and tsavorite, £15,000; Balmain Labyrinth Frieze ring in yellow gold, £2,000; Balmain Labyrinth Frieze pavé ring in yellow gold set with diamonds, £6,400, all Balmain available at balmain.com © Alex Brunet & Olga Varova for the FT

Rousteing, adopted by middle-class white parents and raised in Bordeaux, is a rare example of a person of color in a top creative position at a luxury fashion house, an imbalance he talks about. “I pushed to change the codes, to be more inclusive, to talk about diversity when there was a lack of conversation around it,” says Rousteing. “Being the first French black designer in a French luxury house, I decided during these 10 years to fight and to ensure that we brought a conversation to the table and not kept it in silence. I so worked on my casting and my campaigns, bringing the music and world of hip hop to the fashion industry and bringing in different Kim ambassadors [Kardashian]Rihanna, Justin Bieber, I had the chance to create this world you call the Balmain army.

Transparency and personal acceptance have also been part of Rousteing’s journey. In October 2020, the designer suffered first and second degree burns to the full length of his body. Although generally candid – a film crew documented the search for his biological parents for the Netflix feature film in 2019 wonder boy – Rousteing kept the accident and the year-long recovery process that followed a secret, opening up to his followers in an Instagram post and op-ed for Vogue, describing how the incident forced him to reevaluate his obsession for authenticity and perfectionism.

Rousteing is passionate about what a modern fashion and jewelry house should represent: “Luxury does not mean being exclusive. Opening doors does not mean not being chic. Opening the door means being inclusive, and the world increasingly needs inclusiveness. I would say that has been my struggle and my obstacle in my decade, making people understand. You see changes, but is it enough? No. In the end, the fight is not over.

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