Olivier Rousteing is not a designer who does things by half measures. So when the return of an IRL Paris Fashion Week coincided with his 10 year anniversary as creative director of Balmain, the celebrations were always going to be extravagant. And extravagant they were. Rather than stage a run-of-the-mill anniversary collection, Rousteing crafted a two-day Balmain extravaganza, inviting thousands of members of the French public to celebrate alongside the assembled fashion press. Doja Cat and Franz Ferdinand played sets after the show finished to a joyous and enthusiastic local crowd.
It’s easy to forget now, but Rousteing’s rapid ascent in French fashion was groundbreaking at the time, and not always roundly championed. When he was appointed creative director of Balmain in 2011 he was only 26, and the first Black person ever to helm a French luxury fashion house. The fashion press didn’t immediately warm to his vision for Balmain, which exploded in 2014 with ringing endorsements from the likes of Kim Kardashian, Cara Delevingne, and Jennifer Lopez, and a hysteria-inducing H&M collaboration. Their early criticisms were unquestionably racially coded—there were fears that Rousteing was tainting the prestige of the 70 year old brand by catering to glittering celebrities and a broader range of bodies. They were soon proven wrong.
All of which is to say that last night’s show represented more than a single designer’s decade of success. In the years since Rousteing’s appointment, there have only been two further Black creatives appointed to lead French fashion houses, Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton and Rihanna at the now-shuttered Fenty maison. There is still much progress to be made. To pay tribute to the occasion, none other than Beyoncè appeared to deliver a digital message of support. “There were people who had a hard time imagining someone who looked like Olivier could lead up a Parisian couture house,” she said.
Another show-stopping moment came when, at the end of Balmain’s Spring/Summer 2022 runway presentation, Naomi Campbell took to the runway wearing one of 15 looks from an archive-inspired capsule collection Rousteing designed for the anniversary. She was soon joined by fellow veteran supers Milla Jovovich, Karen Elson, Lara Stone, Natalia Vodianova, and Carla Bruni, as well as the new generation of fashion’s megastars: Adut Akech, Precious Lee, Iman Haaman, Cindy Bruna. They all joined Rousteing as he took his bow on the runway, a fitting tribute to the cultural weight of the moment. May we see many Olivier bow at the end of a Balmain runway show for many more years to come.