Olivier Rousteing and Ann-Sofie Johansson reveal secrets behind the Balmain x H&M collaboration

Buro exclusive

Text: Dora Aljoofri-Shrestha

What went on in Olivier Rousteing’s mind when he collaborated with H&M? Buro 24/7 Singapore digs deeper during the launch party in New York

Ten years ago when Olivier Rousteing was queuing up for H&M designer collaborations like everyone else in the world, no one would have thought that he would be the creative director of one of the most iconic French fashion houses today. Ten years later, the poster boy of Balmain is also the creative director behind one of the most sought after designer collaborative collections by the Swedish high-street brand (which also happens to be the brand he bought his first jacket from).

Said to be the most personal collaboration to date, the Balmain x H&M collection is one of Rousteing's proudest moments in his career and life. "I think I've already achieved a lot. The sky is the limit and more things can be done. The collaboration is one of the biggest things I've achieved," shares Rousteing. An emotional and intimate collaboration, the 109-piece collection tells a personal story of his career at Balmain over the last few years.

Buro 24/7 Singapore was invited to the launch party in New York on 20 October and given exclusive access to the press conference held at the Ralph Walker Tribeca. At the personal session with Olivier Rousteing and creative advisor Ann-Sofie Johansson — mediated by Vogue Runway director, Nicole Phelps — we found out more about the shared vision for the Balmain x H&M collection and what the #HMBalmaination universe entails.

Today, I just want to make sure that people who follow me and love Balmain can have that access. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. I think it's really important that people who can't afford Balmain and dream of it can actually have it now.

Why did H&M choose Balmain? And what goes into choosing a designer to collaborate with?
Ann-Sofie Johansson: We've kept our eyes on Olivier for many years now. When we did the collaboration with Roberto Cavalli, Olivier was working there and even younger than he is now. We kept our eyes open because we knew that he was going to be a talented designer, which he is now. We've had Balmain on our collaboration wish list for a while. So we approached Balmain and Olivier, and here we are today.

Olivier, the Balmain Army is something you talk a lot about on Instagram. Right from the start when the collaboration was announced, you created a hashtag, #HMBalmaination which signifies unity. Why is this especially integral to the H&M collaboration?
Olivier Rousteing: The collaboration is not only about the clothes, but also about the vision, aesthetic and universe of Balmain. When we speak about this universe, we are looking at building an entire nation. Being part of the #HMBalmaination is about unity, diversity, pop-culture and the new generation. #HMBalmaination is a movement more than fashion. We wanted to build this strong nation that believes in the Balmain and H&M universe. If you know me and my Instagram, I speak a lot about fashion and diversity. I think about my age, what I love and pop culture. Sometimes I don't feel like I'm working in fashion. I'm expressing a big vision and an entire nation. I'm really happy H&M and I are building that together. #HMBalmaination is on.

Balmain x H&M - Ann-Sofie Johansson & Olivier Rousteing

Ann-Sofie, is it important to change the designers you collaborate with from year to year?
ASJ: I think the important thing is we choose someone that we admire as a designer and a brand. It's also nice to choose designers with different aesthetics for our customers. The designers in return are able to reach out to more customers. It definitely has to be someone we admire and who is relevant today.

Olivier, you decided to pull pieces from previous Balmain collections for the collaboration. Can you explain why you choose a different approach from the other designers?
OR: I remember ten years ago, I was in line waiting for the different collaborations. I was also watching high-fashion runway shows wishing I could afford that jacket and wishing I could be part of the universe that the designers were building. Today, I just want to make sure that people who follow me and love Balmain can have that access. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. I think it's really important that people who can't afford Balmain and dream of it can actually have it now. It's a really amazing feeling. I want to build a collection that is a celebration of the iconic Balmain pieces because many of my followers comment saying, "I wish I could have that or this". And I've tried to keep the aesthetic of what people love really close to what they want.

Tell us about the pieces you decided to pull out for the collection and why you choose them?
OR: One of the most iconic pieces in the collection is the jacket embellished with pearls. There are two reasons why I chose that. Firstly, it was a big achievement for us to be able to arrive to that couture level. It was amazing to be able to work together with H&M to make it happen. This jacket was from my second show three years ago. It brings back a lot of memories. Memories of all my fears, doubts, what I was going to be, who I was going to become including the level of couture I was trying to push at Balmain. Secondly, the original jacket from the runway show is in a museum now. What can be more special than to have a jacket that is housed in a museum made accessible to people.

Ann-Sofie, how was H&M able to manage the level of couture needed for this collection and the affordability?
ASJ: There are always different challenges with all the collaborations we work on. With Balmain x H&M, it was the hand-beaded work that was an integral part of the Balmain aesthetic, and we knew we had to pull it off. To be honest, we were a little bit scared ourselves on how we were going to manage it. But we had such a good team working on this collection, amazing suppliers, and skilled workers who were really proud to be part of it. It was a nice experience to be able to make it work and pull it all off.

Tell us about the collaborative process and what is was like to work together.
OR: After meeting Ann-Sofie five to six times, I knew I needed to go to Stockholm. But my assistant had to remind me that I couldn't go because I wouldn't be able to take many selfies and everyone would know that I'm in Stockholm, and the secret would be out.

The process was rather amazing. As a designer and a person, I learnt so much. There were different goals we needed to reach in terms of the couture detailing, fabric and tailoring. We managed to make it happen. There was a lot of compromise as well. Ann-Sofie wanted longer dresses but I wanted them shorter. I wanted really high heels, but Ann-Sofie wanted them to be 2cm lower. I wanted more gold buttons, but she persuaded me do with less. It was all about balance and give and take. I learnt way more than I expected as a designer. I learnt how to weigh out price ranges, making sure it's affordable. It was also a really humbling experience because I was an assistant at Cavalli when H&M approached them to collaborate. Now, I am the creative director of this collaboration. H&M has an amazing team. There is a lot of love, respect and great work attitude. It felt like I was working with a family.

I understand that this collection is larger than some of the previous collections. It extends beyond men's, women's and accessories, and includes a fragrance. How did the idea of making a fragrance come about?
OR: There are a lot of pieces because the Balmain and H&M team wanted to ensure that no one would be disappointed. Not everyone can afford the encrusted dress so they can opt for the gold button jacket or accessories instead. At the same time, the fragrance was something important to the Balmain universe so we wanted to bring that to the collection.

ASJ: Like what Olivier said, you need a perfume to dress up your outfits. And of course, H&M just launched its new beauty concept range so it was good timing to also have a perfume.

Balmain x H&M Perfume

Olivier is known to be social-media savvy with 1.4 million Instagram followers and counting. How important is it for a company like H&M to collaborate with someone that brings that kind of savvy-ness?
ASJ: I think that is a bonus — something extra. We didn't choose Olivier because of that. Social media is a new way of communicating with your customers and fans. It's something we do at H&M too. It's about interacting with your fans. We have a lot of fans suggesting who we should collaborate with. One of the top names was actually Olivier. 

Olivier, your fans love to follow you. What do you feel you get back from them?
OR: My Instagram is a part of me. I receive comments that are really important. For me, Instagram is being able to see fashion in a more honest way compared to magazines. If you like me, you follow me. If you don't like me, you unfollow me with just a click. I also feel closer to reality as I'm always in my office from 10 months to a year. So, reading comments from the fans makes you understand where things are going.

You just released a sneak peek of the TV commercial shot in a subway with Kendall Jenner and yourself dancing. Tell us more about the commercial.
OR: Telling a story was something I didn't really understand during my first show. At my first show, I just wanted to make the most beautiful clothes and paid a lot of attention to the details. I still do, but I realise with fashion you can move boundaries and change the state of mind. I think what I do at Balmain is more than fashion. It's a movement and statement. What I did with H&M is I built a universe around the clothes. When you love Balmain, you love luxury and couture. You also love pop culture, dance and music, which is part of my life. The Balmain DNA is fashion, luxury and couture and that is exactly what you see in the video.

Balmain x H&M - Olivier Rousteing & Kendall Jenner

Diversity is a word that keeps coming up. How do the campaign and the models you used represent H&M and Balmain?
OR: They are of the current generation and it was important for me to bring them into the H&M and Balmain world. Kendall, Gigi and Jourdan are part of my world, and now they are part of the H&M world too. Together, we build #HMBalmaination. Kendall, Jourdan and Gigi are the new icons who speak to the current generation. They are also my friends, and when you are working on a big project, it's always nice to have support around you.

H&M has been in the forefront of many innovations, one of which is this designer collaboration series. What is the value of these collaborations for H&M? How has it changed the brand?
ASJ: It has built the brand in a very good way by creating a buzz around the brand. The designer we collaborate with also reaches out to so many more people than it usually does. And as a brand, we learn so much from each collaboration and develop to become better.

Olivier, what has this collaboration done for you and Balmain?
OR: H&M is global and it reaches a younger audience. It's nice for Balmain to be more global thanks to this collaboration, reaching countries that we don't have stores in. I also think it's nice to be able to target a younger crowd. At the same time, I've learnt so much that I'm bringing what I learn back to Balmain. This collaboration is fireworks in my career as well as for Balmain and the H&M story. We did it.

When the collection goes on sale on 5 November, how do you imagine spending that day?
OR: I would like to be in stores but I'm not sure which country I'll be at on that day. I definitely want to see the crowd and excitement. Ten years ago, I was part of that line and now I'm going to see people queuing up for my collection. You can only imagine how I'm feeling. It's going to be amazing and so emotional. So yes, I'll be in a store, but I can't tell you where. 

For more information on the Balmain x H&M collection, click on the Balmain x H&M banners on our fashion homepage.