Olivier Rousteing, creative director of Balmain, has cultivated quite the social media presence (and following). He's recruited everyone from Kim Kardashian West and Kylie Jenner to Lupita Nyong'o and Jennifer Lopez, among many, many others to join the ranks of his #BalmainArmy. In the process, he's not only become the de facto couturier of the Kardashian-West-Jenner family, but he's also gained four million followers on Instagram. A sizable chunk of the designer's very loyal fan base in New York turned out for his Q&A at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night, as part of its series of industry talks with journalist Alina Cho. Their conversation was a whirlwind of emotions, touching on the industry's lip-service to diversity, and the adversity Rousteing faced growing up as a Black man in a white adoptive family in France. There was some lighter fare, too, like the designer's secrets to his selfie techniques, which Cho asked him to demonstrate onstage. ("This is the most awkward moment of my life," Rousteing told the encouraging crowd.) His fans were very present and photo-ready: During an audience Q&A portion of the event, many lined up to the microphones to ask for a selfie, and the designer graciously obliged. That much was to be expected, but there's still a lot Rousteing divulged to Cho and the almost sold-out auditorium that we didn't know before — like, say, the fact that he was once enrolled in law school, that he's focusing on one specific category to grow at Balmain, and that he has a designer crush of his own. Plus, the fact that, yes, there's another fashion house Rousteing could imagine helming, but it doesn't exist (yet): "I think there's one," he said teasingly. "Mine."Ahead, check out a dozen candid tidbits the French talent shared at the event.
1. Rousteing's next big coup at Balmain will be accessories: In June, the French luxury house was acquired by Mayhoola, and with the reported $522 million investment from the Qatar-based firm, it's looking to grow more into the add-on category. Right now, Balmain does sell shoes, bags, gloves, and belts, but the selection is quite limited. "For me now, Balmain has to grow," he told Cho. "I've grown up as a designer in the past five years, and now I want to expand Balmain into a big global brand. I'm aware that the Balmain world is obviously expensive, but I love my crowd, too, that might not be able to afford my clothes... For me, it's really important to make sure that I have different people that believe in my world." 2. Rousteing's first collection at Balmain for spring 2012 was the least stressful — not because he thought it was his strongest, but because he says he didn't really know what to expect, so he didn't stress about the reaction too much. "It's like a kid trying to touch fire because he doesn't understand that he'll get burned," he said. "I think it was the same for me: I learned to be a designer — you never learn to be a creative director." 3. The designer scored the top job at Balmain when he was just 25 — and only 18 months after he started working for the company — thus making him one of the youngest designers to be appointed creative director of a storied French label, ever. (Yves Saint Laurent has him beat, though: He assumed the equivalent role at Dior at age 21, back in 1957.) 4. The designer's army is quite devoted — well, we already knew this, but, according to Rousteing, this is most evident in the sell-out rate of Balmain's collaboration with H&M. He told the crowd that 97% of the collection sold out, while the remaining 3% was reportedly stolen. While H&M doesn't comment on how its collections or collabs sell, the brand did acknowledge the particularly strong response to this pair-up. "The Balmain x H&M collection has been a huge success and we are extremely pleased with the response in the stores on all our markets," the retailer said in a statement to Refinery29.
5. He was almost Olivier Rousteing, esquire. At 18, he actually enrolled in law school (at the behest of his parents). "I like fighting and defending people, but I realized I loved fashion," he said. Rousteing didn't last in the legal world very long, going on to fashion school shortly thereafter (which he also quit before scoring a gig at Roberto Cavalli in Italy.) "I knew what I wanted to do," Rousteing recalled. "You realize your passion can be your job, but it's not something that's easy to believe in." 6. Rousteing's time at Balmain has been marked by form-fitting silhouettes — but this was long before his relationship with the Kardashians took shape. In fact, it was his aunt, Suzelle, who inspired the micromini silhouettes that pepper his collections. "She was sexy — even my mom was shocked, [telling her] 'At this age, you wear these short dresses,'" he remembers. "Now you all understand my bodycon dresses!" 7. Believe it or not, there is something the designer won't post on social media: when he's sad. "That's the only moment I'm not sharing." Still, Rousteing speaks candidly of the impact a strong social presence can have for a brand (although, gets a little self-aware when his Instagram videos are played for the crowd in the Met's auditorium.) "Talking to the crowd at a show is good; talking to the world is better," he said. Rousteing doesn't see this behavior as any different to the personas of '90s supermodels: "They were models, but they were pop. My mom knew of Cindy [Crawford], Naomi [Campbell], Claudia [Schiffer], which is true today for a different type of girl talking to an entire other generation."
8. The Balmain Army has long been lauded for its diverse lineup — but Rousteing won't send a gown to just anybody. "I will never dress someone I don't believe in," he stated adamantly. Apparently, some celebrities have approached the house about wearing Balmain, but Rousteing has turned them down if he didn't have an instant connection with them — not a totally unusual practice for a designer. "People that I dress are people that I love and that inspire me," he explains. 9. He sees championing diversity in his campaigns and on his runway as part of his role — especially in an industry that talks a lot about the topic, but doesn't always act on it. "I can't imagine a catwalk that doesn't represent all the cultures that I can [reach] with my fashion," he explains. "When you see a show where there's no color, and they call it modern or chic — I wouldn't call that modern or chic." To get to a place where fashion can truly call itself inclusive, the industry is going to have to work a lot harder, he says. 10. Rousteing's mom still gets excited when she sees her son on the red carpet with Cindy Crawford at the Met Gala. Yet Rousteing doesn't think he's made it yet — at 31, he still thinks he has a lot to achieve. Another fun Met Gala anecdote: When he attended back in 2012, Rousteing found himself plucking feathers from Beyoncé's Givenchy gown off his shoes at the end of the night after accidentally stepping on her train one too many times. 11. He has a designer crush on Tom Ford. "Who doesn't? Hi, Tom, if you hear me..." Same, Olivier. 12. Rousteing would cast Jaden Smith to play him in a movie about his life: "He's so amazing." Watch the talk in full, below.