Olivier Rousteing takes a bow with models after showing his spring-summer 2020 collection. Photo / Jonas Gustavsson — The Washington Post

Why Balmain's Millennial-Inspired Paris Fashion Week Show Was An Acidic Mess

Designer Olivier Rousteing said his Balmain collection was inspired by his millennial childhood; that's not fair to millennials

Millennials have good reason for moaning and whining about being the put-upon scapegoat generation. They have been accused of destroying dating and being suspicious about marriage. They have degraded shopping. They insist on sharing everything and won't buy anything. They hate plastic straws.

It is impossible to recall all the things that this massive segment of the population has been accused of ruining or turning upside down. Now, designer Olivier Rousteing, a millennial, is dragging his contemporaries into the acidic mess of his spring 2020 collection for Balmain.

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Mess. Is that a harsh word? Perhaps. But the collection he presented Friday afternoon in the winding gilded corridors of the Palais Garnier was dizzying, retina-searing and unnecessarily bedazzled. The proportions were unflattering. Some were boxy and frumpy; others were vulgar; and quite a few simply left one wondering: What could possibly have been the motivation to dress a woman in a Big Bird yellow, acrylic-fringed frock in which the sleeves appeared to be connected to the pant legs?

Rousteing was inspired by the music of his millennial childhood. In his show notes, he muses: "Is my generation's nostalgia for our turn-of-the-century childhood culture somehow less cool than fashion's more familiar fixation on the '70s and '80s?"

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The answer, of course, is no. Every generation is attached to the memories of their youth, to the music and the television shows and the heroes who made them go wide-eyed with admiration. No one generation's past is more important than another's — no matter what baby boomers may think. But that doesn't mean that, as a designer, as someone whose job it is to elevate our aesthetic sensibility, Rousteing shouldn't apply a bit of discernment about what from the past should be dragged into the present and exactly how it should be reworked for the times.

There is nothing wrong with revelling in Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Destiny's Child, as well as early Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé. But one wishes he'd taken those stage costumes and those video wardrobes that so delighted his teenage heart and transformed them into clothes that make the wearer look, well, like she's wearing clothes and not a costume. A designer's job might entail helping folks feel like the star of their own movie, but wouldn't we all prefer to dress for an Oscar rather than a Razzie?

Indeed, Rousteing has contemporaries who draw on the times in which they grew up but who offer a much calmer vision for dressing today. On Thursday morning at Chloé, designer Natacha Ramsay-Levi served up crisp shorts over silky bloomers, flowing pleated dresses and a good number of grounded flats for pounding the pavement. And Friday morning, Jonathan Anderson's collection at Loewe was filled with delicate lace, filmy dresses with patterns that hinted at sand dollars and satin ones that were elegant without being prim.

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But Balmain is a company that epitomises brash, look-at-me, selfie culture, which is to say it is one of the purest reflections of 21st-century salesmanship. Rousteing has built up a mighty following of, at last check, 5.5 million people on Instagram. His clothes look better in photographs than they do in real life. In pictures, the colours pop, the silhouettes look dramatic, and problems with fit and proportion tend to fade away. When you see a photograph of a runway overflowing with models wearing his clothes, the image is one of raucous abandon.

But when you look at the clothes individually, in proximity and in real life, all of their flaws become clear. They look disconnected from the body — almost as if the clothes were at war with a woman's silhouette.

Rousteing's close relationship with the Kardashian family has been well-documented. He regularly outfits them in Balmain, and their style and physicality have inspired him — as well as, it would seem, their taste for dressing for a virtual audience rather than the folks right in front of them. Recently, Rousteing collaborated with Kylie Jenner on a line of cosmetics. His affiliation with the Kardashians is also a reflection of his commitment to diversity in his work. He has championed black and brown models, as well as a more generously proportioned feminine ideal.

Rousteing has always identified as a mixed-race designer. Adopted as a child, he never knew the background of his birthparents. The new documentary Wonder Boy follows him as he explores his roots and learns that, contrary to what he'd always assumed, he's of Somali and Ethiopian descent.

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Identity, in all its facets, has been and continues to be a topic of intense interest to Rousteing. He positions his aesthetic choices, particularly the ones that define his spring collection, as a matter of self-declaration. Indeed, a T-shirt that came down his runway read, "Own who you are." That is an admirable and righteous sentiment. One should do just that. But fashion is also a business. So Rousteing is not absolved of the responsibility to create clothes that, well, fit. Clothes that don't make a woman look as though she is shaped like a rectangle. Clothes that don't turn the simple need to use the bathroom into a herculean task.

The spring collection might reflect who Rousteing considers himself to be. And that's an honourable accomplishment. But that doesn't mean the collection is an expression of how a woman — millennial, Gen X or baby boomer — wants to look. Or that it is anywhere near the best that fashion has to offer.

— The Washington Post

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