ARCHIVE: In Defense of Balmain

Fashion is representative of the time in which we live, a direct reflection of culture at any given time. As Margherita Missoni very aptly noted several years ago: “Fashion is the most immediate symptom of the times we live in. So, when you look at the shows, it’s unbelievable how well it reflects what's going on in the world.”

On the heels of World War I, Coco Chanel was credited with liberating women from the constraints of the "corseted silhouette" and popularizing a more casual chic, as women were becoming more unconventional. In the late 1940’s, this took the form of Christian Dior’s New Look – with its sumptuous silhouette and accentuation of the female form. Monsieur Dior’s use of a large amount of extravagant fabrics for his looks, in particular, was significant. The creation of such collections came on the heels of the denouement of World War II and its uniform dictated sartorial choices and fabric restrictions.

That silhouette was updated over 50 years later when Raf Simons took the helm of the iconic house to embody what the modern woman seeks from a wardrobe. Simons added practical touches, particularly to the house’s couture collections. Pockets, buttons, shorter hemlines are representative of what he calls the dynamisms of 21st century women. It represents the transformation of couture and the modernization of women to their current and likely most dynamic form.

In much the same way, Balmain perfectly embodies our culture.

I am not likening Simons and Balmain’s creative director Olivier Rousteing. That would be a bit too much. However, in much the same way as Raf Simons made Dior couture modern and sellable (as indicated by the increase in sales by 30% during Simons’s tenure), Rousteing is doing the same for Balmain, albeit in a far more garish, significantly less timeless way. And even Balmain x H&M is representative of this. But Rousteing, a master of social media and a very happy figurehead of the Balmain brand, is arguably not innovating in terms of design in the way Mr. Simons has.

In fact, Rousteing’s recent collections have all received less than stellar reviews from the industry’s most respected critics. His garments are deemed to be largely unwearable and/or just plain unappealing. Instead, (and certainly not purposely in lieu of spectacular design) Rousteing is making his mark by way of marketing. Specifically, he is reaching consumers (namely, the consumers of Balmain licensed-products because more than half of the house’s revenue comes from lower-priced Balmain goods) by way of social media and celebrity endorsements.

It is an undeniably smart business move in the current market. In accordance with modern day rules of consumption, trends are nearly all that matter, and trending right now are celebrities, social media and fast fashion. Somewhere along the line, we have collectively come to disregard how much clothing should actually, reasonably cost and instead, have come to expect things to be instantly accessible and terribly cheap. It makes sense though. Our attention spans are very short, after all, and the market is more heavily saturated with goods than probably ever before.  We can buy anything at any time, and with the exception of Céline (and a few other brands), we can do it online.

We have come to rely on fast fashion retailers as a reference point. If H&M can offer t-shirts for $10, why pay $40 for one? High fashion is no longer a privilege; the watered down copies that Nasty Gal offers have somehow made high fashion something consumers have come to expect. The market largely believes it has a right to shop designer copies. Hence, the smashing success of fast fashion retailers. This is the state of fashion at this moment in time.

If we place this into the ecosystem of fashion, the lifespan of fashion becomes even shorter. Design houses show numerous collections every year and then do the same the following year. The reason is commercial in nature, and the flow of garments is sped up and seemingly never-ending. Designers have begun to speak to this point, pushing back against the cycle that demands they show 6 or 8 collections per year. This is not requiring of creativity (there simply isn’t time for such a luxury anymore), according to Raf Simons. In his mind (and the minds of others in the upper echelon), it seems that this is hardly even fashion anymore. This is merely the production of clothing. And there is a vast difference between “fashion” and “clothing.” And yet, very few in the consuming public (aside from the true fashion fans/clients) seem to mind. Buying clothes that pose as fashion satisfies them. And this, too, is the state of fashion at this moment in time.

If there is one thing that Rousteing understands, it is the ethos of the millennial youth culture. He seems to understand that right now, their allegiances are not necessarily with fashion. They are with celebrity. They are also with cheap, trendy clothes and accessories posing as fashion. Magazines and fashion houses firmly rely on celebrities to drive sales, and the consuming public has begun to care less about the fashion than the celebrities themselves. They do not seem to know the difference between clothing and fashion, or better yet, they do not seem to care. Their social media feeds dictate their opinions, and social media is where Rousteing does his best work.

In case you have never come across Olivier Rousteing’s Instagram account, bless your soul. You give me hope for humanity. For the prized uninitiated amongst us, Rousteing’s Instagram account – with its 1.6 million followers – positions him as a Kardashian/Jenner. A solid 96% or so of his photos include a Kardashian or a Jenner, and this is significant. As of March 2015, the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” season premiere, while down in terms of viewership, drew 2.547 million total viewers. Kim’s app, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, has roughly 30 million users. Kylie Jenner’s app was downloaded 1.75 million times during the first week of availability. They each have between 30 and 50 million or so followers on Instagram.

These reality television personas are – like it or not – a considerable symbol of our culture right now with its trendy, sped up fashion, and its “get famous at all costs” attitude. And a Balmain ad or a Rousteing Instagram photo embodies this perfectly. As do most photos of the sisters, who are more often than not, wearing a Balmain garment. (Note: According to recent reports, the sisters are not paid to wear Rousteing’s designs. However, the Kardashian/Jenners have violated the Federal Trade Commission's endorsement guidelines to make a buck before and they will certainly do it again. As such, I think it is extremely fair to question the accuracy of such reports.)

With this in mind, Rousteing (and the garments and accessories he shows each season) is right on point. He is willing to go where other, more traditional (read: respectable?) houses, will not. He is essentially (or maybe, very literally) allowing America’s most popular reality stars do the hard work: to make his garments enticing and thus, sell his collection for him. As for whether that makes for good or noteworthy garments or a sustainable model for growth, is another story. Posing the argument that Rousteing has his finger on the pulse and suggesting that he is a designer worthy of industry recognition for his compelling design work are two vastly different arguments. 

* This article was initially published in November 2015.