Beyond what we've come to associate with Balmain — embroidery, shoulder pads, the Kardashians — includes a more humble story that's often overshadowed or untold. Olivier Rousteing, the 31-year old Bordeaux-born, Paris-raised designer has come a long way from being orphaned at birth. At 24, he became the youngest creative director since Yves Saint Laurent to be appointed to the helm of a French fashion house, and has transformed the legacy of it in under a decade. In the past seven years, the mixed-race, openly gay Rousteing has long championed diversity at Balmain, be it on the runway or in campaigns, but his latest project hits even closer to home.
On Monday, Balmain is joining forces with (RED) to auction off its custom-made looks for this year's Met Gala. From May 7 to 21, the pieces worn by Jennifer Lopez, Alex Rodriguez, Trevor Noah, Juliette Binoche, Natalia Vodianova, Natasha Poly, and Julia Stegner will be available for bidding at IfOnly.com/RED; the items will start at $5k (£3,700), with 100% of the proceeds going toward the foundation's Global Fund, which works to eliminate the transmission of HIV from mothers to their babies.
"After meeting Bono, we wanted to figure out how my fashion and vision can help," Rousteing explained to Refinery29 why, for personal reasons, he is selling his latest creations via the organisation. "It's a paradox: I live in a French, haute couture/luxury world, but sometimes people forget that, when you're a designer, it's not just about selling clothes — it's about having a vision. Coming from an orphanage, I wanted to be a part of that story, as well; to help kids who don't know their parents or have parents who died of AIDS or who were born with HIV. We don't necessarily have the same stories, but it's sad when your background doesn't support growth or a new story. I had the chance to have a beautiful life, but I want to use what I have now to help kids who don't have that chance."
In addition to a special activation with Snapchat, in which the pieces will be on full display for the virtual taking, it's Rousteing's own presence on social media — an adroitness that has seen many of his colleagues follow suit, via selfies or otherwise — that is helping to spread the word. "On my social media, I can show not only my clothes but my vision and the world that I belong to. After eight years at Balmain, I want to be the person that can express more than that," he says. But, in terms of the clothes themselves, this year's Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination theme was an opportunity to show his faith — whether its in his millions of followers or the higher power of his endless imagination.
"I'm inspired by religion. More than that, I'm inspired by love," he reveals, noting that while his creations for Balmain are known for their extravagance and ornate detail — an aesthetic that fits comfortably within fashion's relationship to Catholicism — it was the chance to save a life that inspired him to take his skills as a couturier beyond the over-the-top spectacle we're used to seeing from Balmain, but to the extreme. "I told my team, 'I know that these won't be ours at the end. But they're going to auction for (RED).' I wanted to make the most memorable clothes not just by their craftsmanship, embroidery, or cut, but because all of that would go toward helping kids survive. That was the point: to make the most spectacular creations to get the most money to save the most lives."
As of 2016, there are more than 16.5 million orphans on the planet who have either lost one or both parents to AIDS. It's a number that, upon meeting Rousteing some years ago, (RED) chief executive officer Deborah Dugan remembers had an impact on the young designer who was adopted at the age of one. "He's always been about where you're from shouldn't determine where you'll go, and Bono has always said where you're from shouldn't determine whether you'll live or die. So it was totally his idea," Dugan says. "He called me and told me what he was doing and asked if we could auction the dresses off at the end of the night. To turn that kind of red carpet 'really (RED)' — it took my breath away."
"We've never done this before," Dugan says of collaborating with a high-fashion, luxury brand. "But what we're trying to do is get these moments of awe to capture people's imagination, to get them to believe in something, and to do something good. Fashion is a universal language; it's what moves people." She admits that collaborating with Balmain has set the bar so high that future fashion collaborations are yet to be ideated. But Dugan plans to adhere to the (RED) fundraising model, which is to disrupt philanthropy. "We're only as good as our next idea and my guess is that Olivier has a few more up his sleeve."
When asked whether this marks a more charitable future for Balmain, Rousteing replies sans hesitation. "Oui," he says firmly. "This marks the beginning of our work with (RED). It's not just going to be a one-shot collaboration. It's going to become a part of the Balmain journey."