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Revolution, evolution or demise. These are the crossroads that Parisian fashion house, Balmain, and many other heritage fashion houses faced at the dawn of the digital age. Founder, Pierre Balmain, was known to state that “Good fashion is evolution, not revolution” so his choice was clear. But in the hurried 21st century, brands that take their time to evolve attract no attention. 

Balmain’s roots are in dressing the ultra feminine, Jolie Madame, in billowing skirts, soft shoulders and luxurious opulence. This lavish aesthetic, though demure, attracted the attention of fashion aficionados of the post world-war II era who were eager to be liberated from the confines of utilitarian wartime dressing. Founder Pierre Balmain’s stately couture floor length gowns were utterly feminine, loved by European and Hollywood Royalty and were as popular as the designs of his contemporaries Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy. 

The brand stayed true to its glamorous lady-like aesthetic up until and well beyond Pierre Balmain’s death in 1980s with the likes of creative directors such as Oscar de la Renta, known also for refined glamour, leading the brand until 2002.

It’s this time, the turn of the new century and the ascent of the digital age that brought upon the Balmain revolution. In 2005 creative director Christophe Decarnin led the label on its first departure from tradition and to cult status among the masses, including in the online realm. Decarnin introduced the contemporary Balmain rocker-chic that thrust the near bankrupt brand back into the consciousness of the fashion elite. Pieces from Balmain’s SS09 ready-to-wear collection were released on luxury online shopping hub net-a-porter that included the sell-out Balmain drummer boy military jacket. 

After Decarnin’s departure from the brand in 2011 the then 25-year-old Olivier Rousteing began his creative reign. The young creative director continued the brand’s trajectory towards targeting the young, cool and rich with his debut collection featuring short hemlines, fitted silhouettes and a strong temperament. 

He also paid homage to the brand’s French heritage with the introduction of heavy embroidery and opulent baroque beading, looks that are analogous with the brand’s modern identity.

Olivier Rousteing’s most notable achievement in his tenure has been his push to reconcile the historic brand with the digital age. Chances are if you are an instagram user with even just a faint interest in high fashion, you’ve been exposed to the cult of Balmain.

In 2012 Rousteing was one of the first luxury fashion creative directors to start a personal instagram account. At the time of writing, his followers reached 2.9m with a profile that reads ‘THIS IS MY REALITY’. A reality which boasts a supermodel clique, countless celebrity selfies, and a riot of impressive Balmain couture. 

Rousteing’s approach of using celebrities to promote the brand is nothing new. Pierre Balmain himself (perhaps not intentionally) propelled his brand into popularity by dressing Hollywood actresses, and the modern celebrity seldom walks down a red carpet without reciting the creative forces behind their outfits. It’s an old formula and it works. What Rousteing did was align his brand with the likes of viral celebrities, the clan Kardashian, pop starlets like Rihanna and popular models such as Gigi Hadid who themselves use social media to push their personal brands. 

He not only dressed them, he made them ambassadors with all three fronting Balmain campaigns and in true millennial form, he embraced the moniker tied to his fanbase and his ambassadors - the #Balmainarmy.

Olivier Rousteing’s vision is clear. He wants the brand to reach empire status and he knows that bringing it to the masses is the only way to get it there. In an interview with The New Yorker, Rousteing remarked, “I don’t believe that all my 1.2 million followers can actually get Balmain, obviously… my followers are dreaming of getting Balmain”.

In 2015, a collaborative effort with chain store H&M saw 109 Balmain pieces enter the High-Street world. #balmania ensued. The pieces, though still a few hundred dollars made Balmain designs a reality for those willing to spend the night outside an H&M store, and are so sought after that some pieces can be found on eBay at actual Balmain couture prices. 

In doing this, he’s taken the brand across the line of high fashion and into commonality. A move that some critics think strays too far from the brands heritage. But his vision, to dress women of the moment in beautiful, empowering clothing isn’t so far from what Pierre Balmain initially achieved.

After the ration-confined years of plain wartime dressing, Pierre wanted to give women their femininity back. Rousteing is in our era encouraging women to explore their sexuality and strength through fashion. He’s also making an important statement with his deliberate casting of ethnically diverse models. 

Balmain’s SS16 campaign epitomizes this sentiment. Rousteing adds the likes of supermodel’s Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford to his Balmain Army. Having strong, powerful women front his campaign shows us that Balmain isn’t just for millennial’s, it’s for everyone. 

In an interview with he notes, ‘‘My Balmain girls are really different – you have Binx [Walton], you have Jourdan Dunn, you have Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, you have Kendall [Jenner], Gigi [Hadid], you have Alessandra Ambrosio. They are all different. They can be mums, they can be super young, they can be older, they all have different shapes. I love showing different ethnicities – for me this is very important.’’

Some find his moves too crass for the world of high fashion. Some call it enterprising. Regardless of how you feel about his marketing strategy, it’s hard to deny the allure of his designs despite of, and because of his new worldwide fanbase.

Contemporary Balmain exudes opulence and sex appeal and is more mademoiselle than madame. Dresses are lashed with fringes and tassels; made with tough leather and insane weaving; pretty paisley prints and carefully draped silks are contrasted with bold shoulders bondage-esque construction. It’s high-octane luxury m that’s hard to not love it. 

The Balmain of yesteryear celebrated the femininity of women. The Balmain of today celebrates their audacity. There’s no doubt that contemporary creative directors have taken the brand from evolution to revolution, but with a fine tailoring and design heritage and a firm grasp and influence on what is #trendingnow, were glad the brand is far from demise. 

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