It was a busy week for Olivier Rousteing, as the creative director of Balmain mounted both his Fall/Winter 2019-2020 Menswear show and showcased his Spring-Summer 2019 Couture collection back-to-back in Paris, France.
True to the palette he favored last season, Rousteing’s vision for the Balmain man is black, white, and very graphic, blending tailored silhouettes with athletic touches for a stylized schoolboy look. Tweed, denim, leather, satin, stripes, checks and plaids all featured heavily on Balmain’s runway, as did unisex touches like crossbody bags, coyly messaged tees, and heavy metal accessories. An almost constant motif? Steampunk-style glasses that lent a slightly sinister touch to the distinctly dark and downtown vibe of Rousteing’s “Balmain army.”
By contrast, Balmain’s 2019 Haute Couture collection, Rousteing’s first for the luxury label, was light, surreal, and almost overwhelmingly iridescent. The designer was clearly inspired by the natural beauty of pearls this season, as they turned up repeatedly in his collection—not only on the clothes, but as the clothes themselves.
Pearls turned up as sleeves, skirts, bracelets, and bags on almost every garment Rousteing sent through his showroom, pushing the limits of couture and raising questions of wearability and relevance.
“Of course, the house is known for being edgy and sexy and glamorous. Here, it’s all about bringing back Balmain to the elegance of la France,” Rousteing told Vogue, adding that he’d referenced the maison’s archives. “Everything you see will give the sense that it’s taken from the ideas of Mr. Balmain.”
The effect? Somewhere between the divas of Dynasty and the otherworldly creatures of The Fifth Element—with another healthy serving of those Steampunk glasses, for continuity. The color palette, oversized shoulders and bows, and dramatic headwear brought to mind the mid-to-late 1980's appeal of pastel glamour and excess, while the surrealist shapes often distorted the form to alien-like proportions, challenging the viewer to focus on the artistry rather than the accessibility.
But Balmain’s show threatened to be upstaged by Rousteing’s choice to carry the pearlized theme onto his models, painting all of his non-black models a shimmering white, and several of the few black models in the presentation a gleaming ebony, presumably to mimic a black pearl.
The inspiration may have been innocent, but the choice—along with the collection—was panned by many fashion critics, who felt the body painting too closely referenced blackface (and whiteface, tbh). Most notable was the transformation of biracial model Cindy Bruna, who was rendered almost unrecognizable by the black makeup used by Balmain’s makeup team, led by Val Garland.
For those asking: “Can black people be guilty of blackface?” over a century of minstrel shows would say “Yes.” But aside from the potentially offensive implications, perhaps the bigger question is “Why?” The makeup did nothing to salvage an otherwise unwearable collection, and actually distracted from the rare garments that deserved a chance to shine. Couture is a highly technical and conceptual arena, but Rousteing’s first foray for Balmain unfortunately wasn’t a gem.