In 2011, at the age of just 24, Olivier Rousteing achieved what many fashion designers devote their entire careers trying and failing to do. By being appointed creative director at Balmain, he became one of the youngest people ever to take the creative reins at a French fashion house.
And yet this extraordinary achievement almost feels like it was pre-destined, propelled by a deep-rooted determination and drive. As an openly gay man of colour growing up in south-west France, where he was adopted at an early age by white parents, Olivier developed a tenacity and determination that would come to frame him and drive him emotionally, creatively and professionally. Behind it all was a fear of failure, a sense of loyalty and a desire to do the right thing.
Despite the glitz and glamour that comes with the job (Olivier counts the Kardashians, Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez as celebrity friends), his life is one of ying and yang, chaos and calm. Escaping the buzz of Paris for the calm and solitude of the Normandy coast behind the wheel of a Porsche Panamera, Olivier shares the story behind his unquenchable inner drive.
In 2011 you became the youngest ever creative director of a French fashion house since the legendary Yves Saint Laurent. How did you get there at such an early age?
“I really don’t know how I established this creativity at such a young age. When I got appointed at Balmain at 24, I was still a baby of fashion. I didn’t know what was going on, or how my life would change. I worked so hard, day and night. I had no fear. I achieved what someone would achieve in maybe 20 years because I believed so much in my work.”
How does where you come from define you and your work?
“I always worried about the future, and I think that’s why I’m so impatient. Deep down I wanted to prove to my parents that I was really good. So, I always pushed my limits and tried not to be scared. You should always push your limits to the maximum so that one day you will achieve what you are fighting for.”
You’re incredibly successful. What motivates you?
“I need to be loved. And not just by the fashion crowd, but by the people who actually see my work. I was born with strength, but success is something you develop. It’s the most beautiful thing, but it can be cruel, too. You have to experience loneliness at the top, because that is the only way to succeed. Don’t ever compromise. I would rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I’m not. I respect people who make their own revolution happen.”
What do you strive for?
“What I am fighting for every day in my life and career is to stop racism and discrimination, and to help build and contribute to a new, inclusive world where everybody feels free to be who they are, free to dream. A world that recognises all cultures and all ethnicities. One of the biggest challenges I have ever faced is the fight against racism. I have known what it’s like for the doors to be closed for you. I don’t want that for other generations. I want to give hope to children who have the same background as me.”
I love this paradox of my life. The chaos and the calm
What are some of the biggest hurdles you have overcome to get to where you are?
“Whether it’s work or personal, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is trust. A lot of people might love you, but not necessarily for who you are. If I had a message for my younger self I would say: ‘Be yourself. Don’t be scared’. People will always try to put you down, but stand up for what you believe in.”
What inspires you?
“I love my creative process. It’s all about finding inspiration from around the world. It can be an emotion, silence, a place, my friends, music. Inspiration is all around me. Paris inspires me a lot, from the streets around my house to the restaurants and the bars. But I’m also really inspired by escape. One of my favourite places is Normandy. Leaving the city to go to the countryside feels like recharging my emotions and my creativity. Listening to the sound of the waves and the beauty of the sky. I love this paradox of my life. The chaos and the calm.”
You were adopted as a child. How has that shaped who you are personally and professionally?
“When I was young, I thought that being adopted was a weakness. But I’d now say that it is a strength. Because when you are adopted, you want to be recognised and loved. Knowing where I came from has defined who I am today. I will never forget the absolute fear I had of my parents being disappointed in me and sending me back to the orphanage. My life has been based on trying to be the best. To prove I was the right choice. This unsatisfaction is also part of my creative process. It drives me to try harder and be the best version of who I am, to make sure I never disappoint the people that I love. That’s what drives me.”
As a creative person, how do you push your work to be better than before?
“What I think is really important in my creative process is that I am never really satisfied. I jump from collection to collection thinking that the one that I’ve done before is not good enough. This characteristic defines being a creative person, this desire to always want to do more and achieve your best knowing that you will never be satisfied. But it’s also a strength. I love creating new ideas season after season, because I’m always bored of my first idea. So, for me, it’s easy to jump to another idea. I’m never bored. Actually, I’m impatient to always create something new.”
You famously dropped out of the revered French fashion school, ESMOD, because of a lack of creative freedom. What does creative freedom mean to you?
“Creative freedom makes me feel alive. Without it, I wouldn’t feel myself. I’m proud that I’ve found it and that I don’t have any boundaries. Creative freedom feels like I have wings and that I can fly. Sometimes, I get scared of flying because I might burn my wings, but this is also a strength – being fearless but knowing that I can always do better.”
For creative people, their work and their passion are often intertwined. How has your passion for design shaped who you are as a person?
“I have loved sketching ever since I was a kid. I would draw a lot when I was lonely in my house in south-west France. For me, it was an escape. A way to forget where I came from. Drawing for me has been a part of my life. I feel drawing saved my life. The moment I stop drawing, is the moment I stop being alive.”