LONDON, United Kingdom — Balmain is a brand on the rise. Since Olivier Rousteing was appointed creative director in 2011, the young designer has overseen a digital revolution at the historic French house. “I was born with Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Skype. The fact is I love communicating with people. I love pop culture, and pop, for me, is popular and population,” said Rousteing, in an exclusive video interview with BoF’s Imran Amed, two weeks after he became the most followed french fashion designer on Instagram, with over one million followers.
However, it is the even wider reach of Rousteing’s ‘Balmain army’ — Kanye West, Kim Kardashian-West, Rihanna, Rosie Huntington-Whitely and a score of other instantly recognisable, Insta-famous figures — that has enabled Balmain to raise its global brand awareness, reaching a new, young audience, quite different to the house’s ‘Jolie Madame’ roots.
Together, they reach more than 47 million followers, dwarfing the official Instagram sites of brands like Chanel and Givenchy which have 3.3 million and 1.8 million followers, respectively. Balmain currently has 1.2 million followers on its official Instagram.
“Instagram is all about a population that is not only the front row of a fashion show,” says Rousteing. “Today it is as important as the front row, having young people looking at your shows, looking at your fashion and supporting you. It is a new way of communication. It is stronger than magazines, you are not buying your audience, you don’t have to be a big advertiser,” he continued. Indeed, Balmain’s digital push has been achieved with disproportionately low investment, when compared to those of fashion megabrands like Chanel.
“We have widened the range of the people that we are reaching and it is a good way for us to be very international and to reach so many people,” said Emmanuel Diemoz, Balmain’s chief executive.
The revitalisation of the Balmain brand may have been achieved in a previously unimaginably cost-efficient manner, however, the decision to internally hire Rousteing, following Christophe Decarnin’s swift and unexpected exit from the house, was not without risk.
“In appointing Olivier we were not really aware of where it will lead us, and, in fact, today it is completely different to what we were expecting four years ago,” admitted Diemoz. “At first, to be perfectly honest, I was scared. The way that we communicated, traditionally speaking, is through very high fashion, very selective magazines, in order to maintain the brand as very exclusive. So the fact that Olivier proposed to us to communicate through social media, and especially through Instagram, was really a revolution for us. When we appointed him we were expecting an evolution, but not a revolution,” he continued.
“Day after day, month after month we saw that the image of Balmain was changing and from a very Parisian house, we became a very international house, and a very democratic house, due to Instagram and the communication made by Olivier, and it has helped us reach new customers,” added Diemoz. As well as democratising the house, Rousteing has also diversified it. In addition to his ethnically diverse Balmain army friends, Rousteing regularly casts a polyglot of ethnicities in the house’s campaigns and fashion shows.
Despite the seismic shift in the house’s public perception, Rousteing chose not to break too quickly from the distressed denim, high embellishment and power jackets of his predecessor when he began his tenure as creative director. “I did this step by step, without scaring anybody. For the first season, which I did not show in the catwalk, I just wanted to ensure that the business was going well, please the house, please my president, the administration, making sure my buyers still liked it,” said the designer.
“The difference between me and Christophe… he was more into streetwear, where as I am more into glamour. He was more into Kate Moss, I am more into Rihanna, he was more into rock and roll, I am more into pop and hip hop, it is just different vibes, different generations, a different age. What I wanted to do from day one was keep the DNA of the house, but really before Christophe [Decarnin], so Pierre Balmain. Always believing in a really strong woman… he worked a lot on the tailoring and also the couture aspect, the embroidery and the craftsmanship. That is an aesthetic I have always loved."
The challenge now facing Diemoz, is converting the impact of Rousteing’s trailblazing use of social media platforms into commercial success. The Balmain business is, still, relatively small, with revenue of over €30 million in 2012, growing about 20 percent per year. What’s more, it was only a decade ago, in 2004, that the house faced bankruptcy.
“The last nine years have been years of rebuilding the brand and during those years, we have really focused on building a strong wholesale ready-to-wear activity for both women and men. Today we have reached a certain level, if we want to go to the next step, definitely we need to have our own network of retail shops,” said Diemoz.
The newly minted London flagship, in which this interview took place, is the latest in a global retail rollout plan, focused on the burgeoning US market.
“We need to open shops-in-shops, at our own rhythm. We are a privately-owned company and we invest what we gain, so [in terms of monobrand stores] today it is London, in six months it will be New York, and after that, we intend to open other monobrand stores, in order to support the creation of Olivier, and offer the customers a wider range of product to the customer,” said Diemoz.
Rousteing, who was just 24 years old when he was appointed creative director by Alain Hivelin, the brand’s chairman and majority owner who passed away at the end of last year, is focusing his ambitions for the house through the lens of his late mentor’s legacy. “My president, our president, passed away three months ago, and his dream was to make Balmain international; a global, strong and powerful empire. My goal with Balmain today is actually to make his dream come true. My goal in the next years is making sure that the name of the brand is something that every continent will know.”
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 20 March, 2015. An earlier version of this article misstated that Céline has 14,400 Instagram followers. It does not. The article was referring to an unofficial fan account. The brand does not operate an Instagram account.