For all its rock-chick chic associations, if there's one thing Balmain is about, it's not rocking the boat. That was the task Olivier Rousteing was saddled with when taking over the reins of the French luxer-than-luxe luxury house from Christopher Decarnin earlier this year. The codes of the house are set in place: it's about allying the couture salon with the street, the intricate, age-old techniques of the house's petite mains given a contemporary jolt with short, sharp, modern shapes. Well, that's the schtick anyway. What Balmain's really been about is class-meets-trash. Or maybe crass-meets-cash.
That's a good summary of what Rousteing offered in his first Balmain catwalk show, by his own admission. Fusing Las Vegas (read: bling) with Mexico (read: matador bling) - and with more than a little glance back to early nineties Versace (read: blinged into extinction) - Rousteing pushed the Balmain look to the zenith. It could very easily have been its nadir. But somehow cranking up the Balmain machine to insane levels of luxury worked. Rousteing didn't try to dumb-down his Balmain. He didn't try to make it branch=E9. He just got embellishing, throwing an embroidered jacket over an embroidered dress, wrapping it up with an embroidered belt, and sticking the model in embroidered boots, to boot. And that was look two. We knew it was about excess from hereon in. See super-short shorts and micro-mini skirts in brocade, bedecked with decoration from hem to built-up matador waist. Those waists were high - all the better for displaying more embroidery. In fact, some of the skirts extended higher above the crotch than below - all of the shorts certainly did. The longer the show, the shorter the dresses, and the deeper and crustier the embroidery got. It boggled the mind to imagine the millions of hours spent weighing these dresses down with crystal, pearls, studs and chains. One dress had all four of those, scrolled into an intricate, interlocking pattern and chain cascading down the arms. It just about reached the upper thigh.
If you thought that one sounded a bit like something Decarnin sent out back in that Versailles collection in 2010, you'd be right. Installing a new designer in an existing house is always about marrying their aesthetic with the house's existing codes of conduct - hence, this was the 'something old', the existing Balmain formula expounded again and again, but Rousteing did offer 'something new'. His trouser shapes were slightly looser, kicking out over the shoe in homage to Rodeo tailor Nudie Cohn (more embroidery excuses there). His pastel colour-palette was delicate - much more delicate that Decarnin would ever have permitted - pale pinks, ivories and lilacs against soft chambray-denim blue. That blue was worked into viva Versace shirts and gold-scrolled suiting, but also a floor-length suede skirt. It had a slit high enough that a wayward step could threaten arrest on many a city street, but it seemed to cover more than it showed, the same with a sister in papery black calf. The top brass at Balmain will be satisfied by the racy, pacy multitude of short eye-pop Rhinestone Cowgirl frocks, but these pieces looked like an evolution of the Balmain style that could appeal to press and buyers. And even a Balmain girl could get behind - and inside - that 'something blue'.