Olivier Rousteing Isn't Afraid of AI — and You Shouldn't Be Either
The creative director of Balmain talks about the house's ongoing collaboration with Evian, his views on technology (and the role it plays in the future of fashion) and more.
Olivier Rousteing has always carried the torch for maximalism chez Balmain. He's also always loved surprising audiences and playing with people's expectations, whether it be through the references he pulls from for collections, the celebrities he works with or the surprising brands he chooses to collaborate with.
Take the brand's ongoing partnership with Evian (yes, as in the water company), which releases its second collaborative collection on Tuesday. The ready-to-wear capsule — which consists of hoodies, jackets, shorts and dresses, with some accessories — is about "giving access to the world, into the beautiful journey that I've spent with Evian," Rousteing tells Fashionista, pointing out that the collaboration offers a lower price point for customers to buy into the world he's built at Balmain.
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The Balmain x Evian collaboration began at Paris Fashion Week last year, when the brand showcased a deceivingly simple white dress made from recycled plastic bottles, woven in a fine monofilament yarn. Léna Mahfouf wore it to the Spring 2023 show.
While these may seem like unconventional projects to take on, Rousteing has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation. The French designer was among the first to fortify his profile on social media, utilizing it as a tool to sell high fashion.
"When social media started, people were like, 'Oh my God, what [are] we gonna do with the press? What are we going to do with that?," he remembers. "But we just understood [over time] that [social media] can just be a really great platform."
Currently, Rousteing is "obsessed" with NFTs and the metaverse, and has been reading into innovations in artificial intelligence.
"AI is everywhere — from a creative perspective, a political perspective, in the music industry... This is a real huge question mark. Where is it going to be good or bad? We need to use it into a really smart and cautious way," he says. "I believe that fashion is about art and freedom of expression, so I think this is the way that we should use it. But we shouldn't use technology as a replacement for humans. I think we should use it to elevate us to a new perspective."
While other brands are only slowly starting to embrace digital worlds and tools like AI, Rousteing is already playing around with how these can fit into Balmain. He's worked with CGI artists to create a virtual "Balmain Army", collaborated with gaming company Altava to create a virtual showroom and designed "couture pieces" that can be purchased as NFTs.
"It's really hard for fashion... to understand technology because they feel threatened by a new reality," he says. "But again, when I started my social media, I understood that it would help me more than it would put me down. I think the same way with AI — sometimes, my team is working with new programs, or I'll spend a couple of hours listening to AI songs... It's opened my mind to so many fields that I have never experimented [with]."
Rousteing's Balmain has always been future-facing, never afraid to be ahead of the curve. For the designer, it's not about choosing one thing over another, but rather about seeing ways that these advancements can help you and your vision. "During Covid, I was so impressed by digital world because, when we couldn't travel, we could create a show and decide if we wanted to be in New York, it could be in New York, then it can be in L.A., then it can be in Japan. That's the beauty of digital... This is what I love about technology, that it's almost like you can make your fantasy become real."
However, he asserts that fashion can't ever lose the human element that has anchored the craft for centuries. At the end of the day, it's all about striking a balance, and using these tools to "help define my point of view and be even more focused and clear."
Rousteing keeps an open mind with all aspects of the business. And that includes collaborations, which he sees as part of preserving the house's legacy. "I call myself a 'witness of my time' — all the collaborations I do, they'll always be as a witness of my time and for the future generation to remember that Balmain was there," he says.
As the creative director for a storied fashion brand, Rousteing maintains that it's a unique approach to craftsmanship that connects all these projects together.
"I love doing a couture dress the same way that I love working for hours and hours on a white jersey T-shirt, because the thing that for me is really interesting is that, even if the T-shirt's going to be maybe a white jersey, the cut and the detail is going to be really important," he says. "The first collaboration with Evian was a couture dress — I didn't wanna start with just a T-shirt because there will be such a huge stretch between what people expect from me and what people will see from me. This is the beauty of Balmain: You can recognize it, from a T-shirt with a beautiful logo to a dress on a cover with Beyoncé. The DNA is so strong, you can recognize from whatever collaboration."
Reporting by Janelle Sessoms.
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