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Chatting With Balmain's Olivier Rousteing

On the surface, Balmain is a house that serves up gilded glamour via über-embellished dresses and second-skin tailoring. Celebrities adore it, from curvyKim Kardashian West to statuesque Sophie Turner, who recently wore a beaded black dress on the red carpet to promote X-Men: Apocalypse. Fans love it, too, double-tapping on creative director Olivier Rousteing’s Instagram photos with obsessive fury, flooding the hashtag #BalmainArmy with selfies in the style of KKW, and lining up for hours to shop the brand’s H&M collaboration. So if the surface of Balmain is so glamorous and easy to comprehend, why dig deeper?

Most people don’t, but maybe they should. In five years at its helm, Rousteing has revitalized the Parisian house, driving revenue up, launching a kids’ collection, and, just last month, opening the brand’s first New York City store—each a link in a string of successes for the 30-year-old. It was in the 100 Wooster Street boutique, a concrete-and-marble space with golden trim that has the look of a lavish Park Avenue apartment but the spirit of a subterranean Meatpacking club.

“For me, America has been a key part of my vision of how I want to see Balmain today because Balmain is a timeless brand,” Rousteing said, surveying a room filled with flesh-toned womenswear. “Balmain is really aristocratic and really about luxury and couture, so bringing pop culture really makes it more modern and more fresh than if I was just keeping with the traditions of Paris. I think that has been part of my success and of Balmain’s success, so it was important for me to open the store here.” It’s his passion for pop culture that has gotten Rousteing into trouble with fashion critics who tend to prefer a quiet, introspective designer to one pouting in pictures with Mrs. Kardashian West. But just as Alessandro Michele is making a mission of bringing ’70s vibes to Gucci, and Hedi Slimane made one of turning the ’70s through ’90s into his fashion playground at Saint Laurent, so will Rousteing mine today’s world for some fashionable crossover—and perhaps we should go a bit easier on him for it.

Rousteing had this to say, referencing the wild success of his H&M collection: “My vision sold, and it’s a business, so why should we critique that?” He admitted that among his 3.1 million followers on Instagram there are some haters, but ultimately the naysayers don’t faze him. “It doesn’t mean that I’m not a good designer, because if your clothes are bad, you don’t sell.” And selling is the name of the game at Balmain. At the new store, shoppers can procure everything from a subdued leather iPhone case to a bedazzled dress. The very fact that Balmain has arrived stateside with its own brick-and-mortar presence is a promising testament to Rousteing’s vision.

Other testaments to Rousteing’s skill include the projects he’s got in the works, some with Balmain and some outside of the company. Next up is “the biggest project that I have ever done in my life,” he said, teasing a future collection. “It’s going to be something really deep and really strong, and it’s going to be a project that’s a mix between fashion and between who I am and my personal life.”

Curious? Rousteing won’t reveal more, but he did say, “I don’t feel any pressure about having all these projects and collections because I love my work and I love what I do. I’m part of the new generation—I’m part of the Twitter generation, the Facebook generation, the Instagram generation where everything is about one click. I think a lot of designers might dislike that—it’s because they are part of a different generation and they have a different way of working, so now they start to see everything go faster. But me, I’m born with that generation, I’m born with this fashion moment where everything has to go fast. I wouldn’t know how to handle it if it was slower.”