Olivier Rousteing, the 30-year-old creative director of the French luxury house Balmain, commands fashion social media and knows how to make a moment an event. He calls the celebrities in his orbit the Balmain Army, but he’s always close by when the close-cut dresses are on.
For Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 3 show in February, Mr. Rousteing dressed the entire Kardashian-Jenner-West clan (even North) in ripped knit dresses and feathery coats. During the show, Kanye gave him a shout-out for dressing the fam, an unprecedented nod for a designer to give at his own show.
Mr. Rousteing is now a celebrity in his own right. In March, Vogue.composted a beauty article entitled “Getting Olivier Rousteing–Worthy Cheekbones Is Easier Than You Think.” He has admitted that he sucks in cheeks for photos; he concedes that the thread of images he shares (a body, a suite, a face, a party, a party, a face, a suite, a body) are a hyper-reality.
And that’s part of his work. The label has three million Instagram followers. It seems as if it’s everywhere, and yet Balmain just opened its first store in the United States, on Wooster Street in SoHo.
The Balmain Army knows the drill: full attention to the camera and then, because so many Instagrams from behind-the-scenes are followed with more candid behind-the-behind-the-scenes photos, the fierce looks break into smiles, or at least less-suctioned pouts.
We see Kendall’s fringed arm draped over Mr. Rousteing’s shoulder, Kylie in white silk leaning softly into his chest, Kanye’s gold embroidered sleeve grazing his hand, Kim in lace-up heels steadied by the designer’s tuxedoed arm, Kris’s face in close, moments after a whisper. Each overstated piece and tender pose is custom-made for the occasion.
The clothes seem to live only on these famous bodies. Even on the app Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, for which Mr. Rousteing designed dresses and accessories that players can buy with real money or the game’s currency, K-stars, the clothes come precurved. According to Women’s Wear Daily, Balmain’s presence on the app drove more than two million visitors to the label’s website. The opening of the SoHo store this month was quieter.
“We didn’t make a big deal out of it,” a salesclerk told locals popping in for the first time. “We unlocked the doors, that’s it.” Balmain will celebrate the opening by hosting an after-party for the Met Ball on May 2, but inside, the actual space is without even a suggestion of Balmain’s accumulated attention and exposure on social media.
The store is beige. If it were my hotel room, I wouldn’t Instagram it. But I would definitely put on Kanye West’s “Waves.” (Let me crash here for the moment/I don’t need to own it) and enter the bed via leap.
When I walk in, a Byredo candle called Bibliothèque is burning. I was expecting Discotheque. The closest thing to an image of a body in the store is an armless, noseless 19th-century replica of a Greek statue, enduring and imperfect, that stands against the back wall between the dressing rooms. There’s a clear dichotomy between shopping and following.
I’m told the space, designed by Studio KO, is meant to evoke Villa Balmain, Pierre Balmain’s vacation home on the island of Elba in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Somewhere remote. A restorative pre-Internet place. Its irregular tiles look like a polished stone floor, a velour couch is the color of a freshly sliced blood orange; you almost expect to see juice on one of the marble tabletops.
Instead, there are belts with mirrored buckles the size of paperbacks ($1,980) and iPhone cases (to house digital Balmain wardrobes) embossed with the label’s logo. A pair of midcentury chairs have open-weave backs, but of course there’s no breeze to feel through them. The store is still.
Can a brand be anxious? The store feels like a retreat from the churn of itself, the photos, the likes, the currency of proximity.
I almost expect inflatable bodies to be floating inside the clothes. Most Balmain followers cannot afford them, even a T-shirt that says #Join the Army ($365). I try a ruffled viscose bodysuit ($2,385), which looks like silky batwings strung across my chest.
Once it is on, I prepare to leave the dressing room. To step out. On Instagram, this is how a celebrity photographed on the street is captioned; she “steps out” in a Balmain dress. These clothes are honest. They hold you. My designer friend tells me that the fabric embrace comes from technically advanced four-way stretch. There’s pull and lift. There’s no darting or corseting, it’s just extremely special fabric.
I try on a floor-length black dress with sheer windows at the waist and hips, and though my blue underwear shows through (like a little patch of sky), the sensation and line of the dress is exquisite. It’s almost too perfect when I learn that a form of viscose is sometimes used to make sausage and hot dog casing.
The salesclerks bring in more pieces “just to see.” Like a tiger-stripe gold-and-black sequin minidress ($5,600) that the model Alessandra Ambrosio stepped out in for her birthday.
I had entered the store wearing a pair of silk boxers fluffed out under a green denim jumpsuit, the top of which I folded down, tying the sleeves around my hips. If you can’t picture this, that’s because it’s not simple, it’s a lot, it’s cover. Now, my bodylines are visible. I suck in my cheeks. The sequins feel heavy but soothing, like a weighted Thunder Vest for dogs nervous in storms.
Through the door, salesclerks offer coffee and ask to snap pictures of me: It’s the first time they’ve seen these clothes on a body, off the runway.
For all the mannequin pouting on the label’s Instagram page, the shopkeepers are alive and have warm, full smiles. They still look nice in the clothes when they slouch. One young man gives a shoulder shimmy when he asks me, “What do you think of the store?”
I feel relaxed in this beige room with all of the most-seen clothing in the world, still and beautiful, like breezeless windsocks. In fabric that hugs me four ways, I’m reminded that my phone is not a body part.
Online, we can inflate ourselves, feel extremely visible. But here in my body, wearing these clothes feels like a secret experience. What I’m looking at has been seen by all, but felt only by me. I’ve stepped in.