Review: Balmain banks on bourgeois with a twist for fall

Adam Tschorn
A scene from the finale of the fall and winter 2020 Balmain women's ready-to-wear runway show presented Friday during Paris Fashion Week.  (Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP / Getty Images)

Friday was a big day for Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing. In the morning, he presented the house's fall and winter 2020 women's ready-to-wear collection and, that evening, a documentary about his birth family (2019's "Wonder Boy") was up for a César — the French equivalent of an Oscar.

"[T]o say that I'm honored would be quite an understatement," Rousteing said in his show notes. "As a child 'né sous X' — an orphan who did not know his own origins — I grew up obsessed with questions regarding heritage, race, belonging and fitting in. And that didn't make my childhood any easier for me. Growing up in Bordeaux, perhaps the most bourgeois city in all of France, I learned from an early age that certain classes, clubs and cliques were closed off to someone who looked like me — and I spent countless hours dreaming and scheming about how I could cross over, open doors and be accepted."

Looks from the Balmain fall and winter 2020 women's ready-to-wear collection presented Friday during Paris Fashion Week.  (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images)

Spoiler alert: We all know how that turned out for the adopted son of a Bordelais couple.

Tapped a decade ago, at 25, to be the creative director of the brand (one of the youngest ever to take the reins of a major French fashion house), Rousteing became a fashion (and media) darling, palling around with the likes of the Kardashian-Wests and Cara Delevingne and broadcasting his message of inclusivity and diversity to the 5.8 million followers of his Instagram account.

Spoiler alert part deux: Although the documentary César ultimately went to another film Friday night (Yolande Zauberman's "M"), Rouesting's curiosity about his past helped him win big on the fashion-week runway.

A silk top printed with "Hippodrome de Balmain" was one of the many equestrian motifs in the fall and winter 2020 Balmain women's ready-to-wear collection.  (Pascal Le Segretain /Getty Images)

That's because, as he describes in his notes, the quest for answers (spoiler alert part trois: he's "half-Ethiopian, half-Somali and 100% français" ) got him thinking about the trappings and codes of bourgeois life that surrounded him in his formative years but for so long remained tantalizingly out of reach.

Those motifs — classic equestrian references, crests, printed-silk scarves, rich fabrics including cashmere and buttery soft leather and hues such as cognac and blue that evoked opulence — were sliced and diced, tweaked and twisted as a way of updating them to speak to a broader audience. (The last of those was literally in the case of molded leather bustiers with wrinkles, drapes and twists that gave the solid pieces the look of a much lighter material.)

A molded-leather bustier top from Balmain's fall and winter 2020 women's ready-to-wear runway collection.  (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images)

That translated as hefty diamond-quilted horse-blanket capes, buttery leather capes and fluttery silk capes, with so many caped models on the runway at one point it looked like a scene out of Comic-Con.

Also in the mix were equine-print silk tops, horsey metal belt, buckle and clasp hardware, saddle-bag-inspired leather pouches, purses and totes, and slouchy thigh-high leather boots.

If there's a Balmain Navy to go along with the Balmain Army, these six-button coats are surely part of the uniform.  (Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP / Getty Images)

The collection was heavy on leather offerings that, in addition to the aforementioned molded-leather bustiers and thigh-high boots, included trousers, tops, opera gloves and jumpsuits festooned with gold-colored, coin-like, B-emblazoned buttons.

Glints of accent gold also cropped up on the half-dozen six-button coat looks that opened the show (if there's a naval counterpart to the Balmain Army, these are surely part of their dress blues uniforms) and jackets heavy with gold embroidery detail.

There was also a handful of latex pieces (a material that seems to be having a moment — see Saint Laurent's fall and winter 2020 runway), both form-fitting (leggings and tops) as well as tailored and draped (jackets with built-in gloves that looked amazing but surely pose logistical issues when trying to navigate a smartphone touch screen).

A model on the Balmain runway wears sunglasses from a soon-to-drop collaboration with Akoni.  (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images)

The show also included chunky statement sunglasses from Balmain's soon-to-launch eyewear collaboration with Akoni, that lent a distinct 1990s vibe to the whole affair and felt wholly appropriate given that, 10 years in to his tenure at Balmain, the clouds of doubt over Rousteing's origins have departed.

And his future is still so bright that he's going to have to wear shades.