Primal Instinct: Olivier Rousteing
Above: Photography by Santiago & Mauricio
Olivier Rousteing is ready for his close-up: “This is my first time posing topless,” he says during his shoot for Out. “Even though I’m pretty much topless all day long.” He’s sitting in his office at the Paris headquarters of Balmain, the prestigious French fashion house he’s been heading for five seasons. It’s an overcast morning, but Rousteing is wearing a low-cut tank top that exposes a nipple every time he leans forward to take a sip of his Starbucks coffee.
“I hate being covered up,” he says. “Some designers today are like, ‘For me, in 2013, it’s more interesting to play with the body by not showing anything.’ I have a more primal approach to that: When you have an asset, you have to be proud of it, not hide it.”
Rousteing knows what he’s talking about. With his high cheekbones and glowing cinnamon skin, he has captivated the fashion industry. His sex appeal would be paralyzing were it not for his boyish charm. Becoming creative director of a legendary brand at the age of 25 would go to anyone’s head, but Rousteing credits his staff for keeping him grounded. “Even when I start acting like a diva, they remind me where I come from,” he says.
Rousteing’s career began at 18, when he dropped out of law school and left his adoptive parents in Bordeaux. “I got a little bored,” he says bluntly. “My parents wanted me to be an international lawyer, but I wanted to do something I felt passionate about. I didn’t want to lead a quiet life.”
He pursued his passion all the way to Rome, where he joined his Italian boyfriend and knocked on the gilded doors of every fashion palazzo until finding a home at Roberto Cavalli. “I considered Roberto and his wife, Eva, like a second family,” he says. “They helped me grow professionally and as a person.”
After five years with Cavalli, Rousteing took another gamble and wrote directly to Christophe Decarnin, then creative director of Balmain. “I loved his shows, his creativity, his strong personality,” Rousteing says. “And I loved Balmain’s past — the beautiful silhouettes and Oscar de la Renta’s couture.”
Decarnin must have recognized the potential in his young acolyte. Rousteing was hired as an assistant, and then, when Decarnin stepped down in 2011, promoted to creative director. The virtual unknown was propelled into the limelight to salute the audience after his debut collection — a triumph — and became an instant hit. But could this young man carry the entire label on his shoulders?
It turns out that Rousteing could. His creations blur the boundaries between haute couture and ready-to-wear, with an architectural approach to tailoring and a flair for Baroque embellishment that few of his peers can rival. “This shit is art, like you don’t even wanna touch it!!!” Rihanna posted on Instagram. Prince wore Balmain in his latest video. Kanye West is a fan (natch).
Still, Rousteing has not forgotten one of the chief lessons from his mentors. “When I started working for Christophe, it was the sexual aspect of his work that I really found interesting,” he says. “I’ve kept this sexual force because it’s important for a man or a woman to arouse. That’s something I learned at Cavalli.” His vision for the Balmain man is a blend of the classic elegance embodied by Yves Saint Laurent and the late French singer Serge Gainsbourg (the inspiration for Rousteing’s spring 2014 collection), and the sexual ambiguity of George Michael and Michael Jackson. His current style icons are Pharrell Williams and Frank Ocean.
And suddenly Rousteing is playing Ocean’s “Eyes Like Sky,” reminiscing about an ex-lover who used the song as an alarm on his phone. “I woke up with this song in the morning after spending the night with him, and we decided that it would be our song,” he says. “I’ve only seen him twice, but I keep him in a corner of my mind.”
Rousteing admits he’s received “plenty” of offers from attractive men since his rise to fame, but says he’s happy being single until he meets the man who wants more than “to date the Balmain guy.” The end of a five-year relationship with his Italian boyfriend left him heartbroken but prompted him to come out to his family. “I never took my parents aside and said, ‘Guess what, Mom and Dad? I’m gay,’ just like they never took me aside and said, ‘Guess what, Olivier? You’re adopted,’ ” he explains. “I never talked about love with them, but they understood me. They accepted and supported me. They’re very protective of me.”