With Balmain’s new leadership, creative director Olivier Rousteing wants to grab a wider audience
The Balmain army can stand easy. Olivier Rousteing, the creative director of the brand known for $4,000 sequined evening dresses and $2,000 gold-buttoned men’s jackets, plans to shift his design aesthetic and open up Balmain to a wider audience, as the Paris-based house gears up for its next growth phase under a new chief executive officer.
Balmain on Monday named Massimo Piombini to the top post, succeeding Emmanuel Diemoz, signaling its ambition to become a global leader in luxury goods under its new Qatari owners.
Piombini, already a member of the Balmain board of directors, was previously worldwide commercial director of Valentino S.p.A., which like Balmain is owned by Mayhoola for Investments, the investment fund backed by the emir of Qatar. His appointment is effective immediately.
Having introduced accessories for fall, Rousteing is looking for additional ways to draw new customers to the brand, which despite its notoriety logged only one-eighth of Valentino’s revenues in 2015 – the latest year for which figures are available.
Diemoz, who joined Balmain in 2000 and owned a stake in the label, steered the company through an explosive growth phase while maintaining high profitability. In a statement, Balmain said he had decided to leave the company after several years of “exemplary leadership.”
But Balmain has plenty of room to grow. In an exclusive interview with WWD, Piombini and Rousteing said they would work together to open stores and expand the product assortment. The brand’s teams have moved into new headquarters in central Paris that will soon house a showroom.
“There is a great opportunity in the market. Balmain is one of the best hidden secrets, because it’s not developed at full potential yet, and so with the support of Olivier and a structure that we have and that we are going to reinforce, I think we’re going to have a great future,” Piombini said.
Since Mayhoola acquired Valentino in 2012, the Italian brand’s revenues have tripled to 1.11 billion euros, or $1.23 billion, in 2016. Piombini said the deep-pocketed fund was willing to support a big retail push to make Balmain its next success story.
“At a certain point, if retail starts performing, it’s going to be in our interest to keep pushing the development, and fortunately we can count on a very ambitious shareholder,” he said. “When they understand that the company, the business, the brand is strong, they are very, very happy to finance the development.”
Rousteing indicated Balmain would expand its offering without straying from its core luxury positioning. “We want to rethink casual luxury,” he said. “We want to put more denims, we want to bring more jersey in the collection, knitwear – something more casual, but still keeping it couture and luxury.”
Balmain has become one of the most visible brands in fashion thanks to the 31-year-old designer’s glitzy creations, which have made him a favorite of celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, Rihanna, Kendall Jenner and Jennifer Lopez.
The term “Balmainia” was coined in 2015 when H&M conscripted Rousteing for its annual holiday designer collaboration. Shoppers hoovered up the merchandise in minutes, with sources describing the tie-up as the Swedish fashion giant’s most successful to date.
Rousteing has amassed 4.4 million followers on Instagram and Balmain’s fall show received the highest overall social engagement during Paris Fashion Week, reaching 1.9 million people, the brand said, quoting data from Instagram.
The designer now plans to develop his daywear offering for women.
“She’s still powerful, she’s confident, but I think I will bring a bit of fragility in my clothes as well, a bit more romanticism, because I think now it’s time for me to explore a different kind of style and aesthetic, keeping the DNA of the house which I’m known for and Balmain is known for,” he said of his female customer.
He will also address a broader male audience.
“You know the Balmain customer for being really rock ‘n’ roll or hip-hop style or pop star, but I think we’re going to open Balmain to different kinds of ages, different kinds of men, and this is really important. I’m known for the superstar Balmain, but I think now it’s time for Balmain to show another aspect, and this is what excites me,” Rousteing said.
Mayhoola acquired 100 percent control of the brand last year, putting an end to the period of uncertainty that followed the death in December 2014 of Alain Hivelin, the company’s majority owner and the architect of its recent global expansion.
Under Diemoz, Balmain tracked an average of 25 percent sales growth between 2013 and 2015. It posted revenues of 121.5 million euros, or $134.8 million at average exchange rates, in 2015. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization totaled 33 million euros, or $36.6 million.
Piombini declined to disclose figures for 2016, but indicated the momentum continued despite a challenging environment for luxury goods. “The brand had a very good 2016, not only from a revenues point of view but also from the profitability,” he said.
The executive, who had been at Valentino since 2008 and previously held positions at Bally, Boucheron, Gucci and Bulgari, said the first order of business was to develop a new retail concept and expand Balmain’s network of 16 directly operated stores.
“For us, it’s not difficult to open stores, but it’s more difficult to make stores work, so to make stores work we need the proper concept, the proper retail format, the proper retail culture overall. And this is something that Olivier and I will build together for Balmain’s future,” he said.
Wholesale accounts for 80 percent of Balmain’s revenues, a proportion he hopes to bring down to 55 to 60 percent within the next five years. “Overall, we want to create a regional structure to open and operate stores, and in the next years we’re going to go from the current 16 to 30, 35 stores,” Piombini added.
Balmain, which last year opened its first freestanding U.S. store in New York, is set to add a boutique in Los Angeles in June and is also looking at Miami.
“There is a strong bond between Olivier and the United States, so the United States is a market where we have to really become visible and relevant, both in the retail and in the wholesale channel,” said Piombini.
He sees leather goods as another avenue for growth.
“We just launched the first collection with fall-winter 2017, and this was just the beginning of something that Olivier has in mind that’s going to be much bigger than what everybody saw so far. When we have a strong accessories business, Asia will be a natural development for us,” he added.
Balmain is also expected to redevelop its fragrance portfolio following the early termination of its agreement with Inter Parfums SA, initially signed for 12 years starting from January 2012.
The brand plans to keep its Paris boutique at 44 Rue François 1er, but will no longer have offices at the historic address, where Pierre Balmain founded the house in 1945. The new headquarters are located at 25 Rue Pasquier, a stone’s throw from Place de la Madeleine in the 8th arrondissement.
“Now Balmain has this opportunity to group under the same roof everything from the style office, the management team, the commercial and eventually also a beautiful new showroom. So I think this is a great asset for the brand and a great opportunity, and it’s also a message that we want to give to the market that now is like the beginning of a new life for the brand,” Piombini said.
Rousteing was upbeat about the change. “It’s a new chapter, and an amazing and beautiful chapter, that’s happening to the house,” he said. “With this new operation, I think it’s just going to be even stronger, bigger and more structured and that makes me really, really happy.”
Piombini credited Rousteing, who took over as creative director at the age of 25 following the sudden departure of Christophe Decarnin in 2011, as integral to the success of the brand.
“Olivier is one of a kind. He’s very intelligent, he’s very smart, he’s very talented, he’s very friendly, and believe me, this is not easy. This makes the difference and adds a quality to a very important professional challenge that I have,” he said.
Rousteing returned the compliment.
“Massimo has a strong vision, a really smart vision of the future, and knows how to analyze the past, has a sense of an aesthetic, of creativity,” he said. “He’s ambitious – that’s what Balmain needs right now.”
Following Piombini’s departure, Valentino revealed separately that Simone Dominici has been appointed managing director, global markets, effective Tuesday. In this new position, Dominici will report to Valentino ceo Stefano Sassi.
Dominici was most recently executive vice president, global markets at Bottega Veneta, a company he joined in 2015. He started his career at Unilever, where he spent 14 years, and has also held positions at Gruppo Coin and Bolton Group.