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04.27.11

At Balmain, French Fashion's Race Breakthrough

Olivier Rousteing's appointment at Balmain masks a more significant achievement. Robin Givhan on why the biracial designer signals an important shift for fashion—and France.

Olivier Rousteing's appointment as the new designer at Balmain came as a bit of a letdown to fashion insiders. No one doubts that Rousteing, 25 years old, is qualified for the job, but he doesn’t come with a big reputation and a glossy image.

In recent years, it’s almost been a requirement that any designer tapped to run a major fashion house bring star power along with the resume. But perhaps those days are coming to a close. Rousteing, a veritable unknown, had been quietly laboring behind the scenes at Balmain since 2009 under its recently departed designer, Christophe Decarnin, who re-energized the house with his signature rock 'n' roll style. Before that, Rousteing spent five years working his way up to head of design for women’s and men’s collections for Roberto Cavalli—the Italian designer who makes Bacchus look restrained.

In reality, though, Rousteing brings something far more interesting than millions of Google hits: diversity.

Rousteing is biracial—black and white. According to a spokesman, Rousteing was born in France, placed in an orphanage and eventually adopted by a family that raised him in the Bordeaux region. Rousteing doesn’t know the exact origins of his birth parents, but he identifies as a person of mixed race.

And with his new top-dog position at Balmain, he sees himself as an example of the kinds of generational changes now taking place in French society.

References to African and African-diaspora culture have found their place on the runways and in various high-end collections, such as those from Jean Paul Gaultier and Hermés. But that same kind of black and brown diversity has not been as common among the lead designers of France’s most venerable brands. In that respect, Rousteing is a novelty.

In a country where the growing diversity of the population has stirred angst over the changing definition of the French identity and has even sparked violent protests, Rousteing’s appointment is significant. It’s a quiet sign of progress.

To be sure, black men such as Patrick Robinson and Edward Wilkerson held high-level positions at Giorgio Armani and Donna Karan, respectively. Lawrence Steele honed his skills at Prada. Max Wilson gave Ralph Lauren women's wear its patrician flair. And many people of color are among the accomplished members of the French ateliers, producing the skilled handiwork that is the hallmark of couture.

But a young biracial man, a black man, standing at the tippy-top of the fashion pyramid in France—or, for that matter, Italy or the United States—is a rarity. And unlike Patrick Kelly, who broke into the ranks of French fashion in the 1980s with his own line of ready-to-wear, blending Southern culture with wit and racial provocation, Rousteing has been asked to be caretaker of a French brand that was established by Pierre Balmain in 1945. French fashion—French history—has been placed in his hands.

In a country where the growing diversity of the population has stirred angst over the changing definition of the French identity and has even sparked violent protests, Rousteing’s appointment is significant. It’s a quiet sign of progress. It’s a subtle acknowledgment that French fashion—who creates it, who participates in it, who defines it—will inevitably mean something different (and better) for future generations.

Rousteing’s elevation at Balmain is thus a moment worth noting. Ultimately, it will be the quality of his spring 2012 collection—in creativity, relevance and commercial success—that determines whether the Rousteing era becomes a footnote in the house’s history or a new chapter worthy of a standing ovation. For now, it's certainly worthy of applause.

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Robin Givhan is a special correspondent for style and culture for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. In 1995 she became the fashion editor of The Washington Post where she covered the news, trends and business of the international fashion industry. She contributed to Runway Madness, No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers , and Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers. She is the author, along with The Washington Post photo staff, of Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady. In 2006, she won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her fashion coverage. She lives and works in Washington, D.C.