When Olivier Rousteing went into lockdown last year, something changed for the Balmain designer. Speaking to his grandparents on the phone, he immersed himself in their memories of the Second World War, finding parallels between crisis modes past and present. It led him to discover the history of Balmain in a way he hadn’t before. Founded in the wake of the war, Pierre Balmain built his house on optimism, escapism and an appetite for exploring a new world. Joined by his friend Gertrude Stein, he flew to America, England—even Australia—to show his creations, making the most of a life without restrictions.
For autumn/winter 2021—Rousteing’s second collection during the pandemic—the house’s current custodian mirrored himself in those stories. “Of course, he went through a lot more than us—the Second World War—but it’s the vision of escaping,” the designer said. Captured in the Air France hangar in Paris, the collection interpreted the trademarks of aviation wardrobe in a post-lockdown proposal that felt more pragmatic than the glitz and glamour we normally associate with Balmain. It reflected a year of change that continues to impact Rousteing’s work. But, as he told British Vogue’s fashion critic Anders Christian Madsen on a video call from Paris, you can still come to Balmain for an ideal party dress.
Were you walking on the wing of a plane in that film?
I never thought I’d be walking on the wing of huge Boeing 777 from Air France! We went through a lot; in the hangars, outside the plane, inside the plane… We were trying to give you an experience you couldn’t get watching a normal show.
How does the film tell the story of the collection?
There are three chapters in this collection: early Balmain—the little coats and ’60s dresses—the aviator world, which is more literal, and the last part which takes you from the Earth to the moon.
Why did you want to go to the moon?
In 300 years, you can probably easily walk on the moon. When I created this collection, I thought people might laugh at me in 300 years and say, ‘look at Balmain, they thought they could walk on the moon!’ It’s about dreaming of a new world. The world we are in now is so tough. The pandemic has made it impossible for us to be together. The idea here was an homage to travelling; to look for an escape.
But this all stems from your research?
The house was built in 1945 after the Second World War, and the first thing Mr Balmain did after his first collection was to go to America with his friend Gertrude Stein. His desire to escape inspired this collection: dreaming of another world. Of course, he went through a lot more than us—the Second World War—but it’s the vision of escaping.
How do you see this video following last season’s live show with an audience of screens?
In thirty years, when people look back at fashion history and think of what happened in 2020 and ’21, and say, ‘How did they present their shows?’ I hope they remember those screens, when people couldn’t be here; I hope they talk about the plane; I hope they ask, ‘Why did they talk about escaping?’ Because we were stuck in our countries and cities and couldn’t be together.
Within the escapism, I actually saw a very grounded wardrobe?
I’m not the biggest fan of editing my fashion shows. Usually, I end up with 120 looks. Out of those 120 looks, there might only be twenty beaded crystal dresses, but people will think, ‘Oh, it’s great. With Balmain we can party again.’ Even though I love the evening dresses, sometimes I don’t feel that people see the realness: a beautiful coat or jacket, a simple wardrobe that’s still really refined. So, it was another side of my suitcase.
Was it a more pragmatic wardrobe?
The word I would use for this collection is ‘nonchalance’. It’s not a loungewear collection—I don’t believe we’ll all be wearing pyjamas in six months— but I believe in a world where we’ll want to have the most beautiful coat, suitcase and jumper, and jump on a flight to see our friends. It was an exercise in showing a different side to my collection, but you can still find your beaded craftsmanship!
A lot of craftsmanship went into the performance wear, though?
It’s the feeling that everything you’re going to buy, you going to buy it because it’s quality. The aviator theme inspired me to push my designs. I’m happy you saw it because it’s a different aspect of the house that I want to push. It’s still the Balmain DNA: the khakis, the neon, the pop, but shown in a different way.
In the words of Karl Lagerfeld: “Very down to Earth, just not this one…”?
Exactly! And two weeks ago, we landed on Mars. The feeling that Earth is not enough, we all have that feeling right now. I’m just a dreamer. In a weird way, during this lockdown I became more of a kid.
Now that you’ve relaunched your labyrinth monogram on all those bags, you can do a real Joan Collins airport moment!
People might see the labyrinth as a commercial move. To me, it’s a timeless move. At Balmain, I’m so tied up on that box of celebrity and pop culture that sometimes people might not see the depth of what I do. My goal for the past ten years has been to bring Balmain—a house from 1945—into a young pop world, and make it one of the most important fashion houses in France. Now that I’ve achieved that, I want to turn Balmain into a real timeless house that’s about quality and luxury and the story. It’s not only about Instagram followings, even though that’s important, too.
Where’s the first place you’re going to fly to when you can?
Two years ago, I discovered my origins. My first travels will be to discover the countries I come from, Somalia and Ethiopia. This is one of my biggest dreams. After that, I want to see my friends in America and Asia. I miss them.
This article was originally published on British Vogue