The Truth About Olivier Rousteing

Lately it is starting to seem a truth universally acknowledged that any fashion brand in possession of a good story must be in want of a documentary.

Dior has one. So do Valentino, Vogue, Tiffany & Co., Manolo Blahnik, Gucci, Dries Van Noten and Zac Posen (to name a few). Ferragamo is getting one. Ralph Lauren is too.

So it wasn’t really a surprise when rumors began to surface that a feature on Balmain and its social-media friendly, celebrity-magnet designer, Olivier Rousteing, 34, known for his ability to strike a pose and his aesthetic embrace of a high-octane power maximalism, was about to get the same treatment. Everyone thought it would be a carefully stage-managed film about his fabulous life.

Everyone was wrong.

“Wonder Boy,” directed and produced by Anissa Bonnefont, 35, premieres in Paris on Saturday, the day after the Balmain show. And though it contains shots of Mr. Rousteing striding down a runway surrounded by a bevy of models as well as pinning and plucking preshow, and navigating the flashbulbs, it isn’t really about fashion at all. It isn’t about the birth of a collection.

It’s about a designer trying to understand the secrets that surround his own birth. And by making it — or allowing it to be made — Mr. Rousteing isn’t just trying to change his own image, he’s trying to change the image of what is possible in France.

“I just thought it was so unusual for this mixed race guy to succeed like this,” said Ms. Bonnefont, who first met Mr. Rousteing in 2016, when he bought the grand Paris apartment where he now lives from her mother. That “to hear his story would be very necessary for our country because of all the issues around immigration. People need to see the reality of how you can achieve a dream and come from nothing. That’s the American story, but it’s not the French story. In France where you come from, what family, what school — that is who you are.”

As to why Mr. Rousteing agreed: “People don’t label Balmain, but they label me, because of my social media,” he said. “They think I am the designer who loves myself, because I post so many selfies. But I realized I had become a caricature of myself, and trapped myself; that the image was my protection, because it meant I did not let anyone into the truth of my world. I want to lose it; I want to be myself rather than the person I pretend to be. But no one could have expected we would go so far.”

The outlines of Mr. Rousteing’s story are pretty well known. Adopted as a baby by a French couple in Bordeaux, he always believed he was of mixed-race parentage. At 25 he burst into fashion consciousness as creative director at Balmain, one of the youngest ever at the helm of a major French brand, and began crafting his carefully filtered image; his Instagram profile picture features him, shirtless, head cocked moodily to the side, taking what seems to be a selfie. The more famous he became, however — he has 5.5 million followers on that platform — the more he felt like he was faking it.

After all, fashion is about offering people a way to express their identity, so how can you be a fashion designer if you don’t understand your own?

“This guy — mixed race, gay and orphan — he didn’t start out at zero,” said Massimo Piombini, the chief executive of Balmain. “He started at minus 10.”

CreditVictor Boyko/Getty Images for Balmain

Ms. Bonnefont understood what that meant: Her family had been left by her biological father when she was three. In 2017, she asked Mr. Rousteing if he had ever considered finding his parents. (She had tracked down and confronted her father when she was 23.) He said he had thought about it when he was 16, but wasn’t ready. Maybe now he was.

“There’s all this talk about inclusivity and diversity, and I’m the first to fight for it, but how could I fight for it without knowing myself where I was from?” Mr. Rousteing said. “I thought I had to face not only my own roots, but my question about why my mother didn’t want me.”

Ms. Bonnefont approached Balmain with the idea of making a film about the search, but with three caveats.

First, Mr. Rousteing had to be honest. “No posing,” she said. Second, she had total access to Balmain. And finally, she had the final cut. Mr. Rousteing talked it over with Mr. Piombini, who was in favor. Ms. Bonnefont, who was also the film’s producer, raised all the money — 1.1 million euros ($1.2 million), from a variety of sources, including the French government. The only financial contribution from the brand came at the end of production, when it helped pay for the rights to some of the soundtrack music (especially famous French pop songs from the 1980s).

Filmed over the course of a year and a half beginning in 2017 (Mr. Rousteing and Ms. Bonnefont spent so much time together, they “became like brother and sister,” she said), the movie follows Mr. Rousteing from home to atelier to government office. He is shown visiting his adoptive grandparents at their home in Bordeaux, pulling his grandmother onto his lap; in the car talking to his driver as if the man were a cross between a confessor and a shrink; in tentative conversation with the psychologist/social worker who guided him through the lengthy bureaucratic process to access and read his adoption file; worrying about what he would find; working out with his trainer; and weeping uncontrollably, snot running down his face, when he finally discovers the basic facts of his birth: His mother’s age when he was born, her difficult circumstances, that she barely knew his father. “She was a kid,” he says, in anguish.

It’s a scene that is as raw and far away from the carefully managed polish of the runway as it is possible to get.

In the end, Ms. Bonnefont had 160 hours of film, which she edited to less than two. The contrast between the glitz of Mr. Rousteing’s perceived life at Balmain — the sparkles, the five-star hotels, the parties — and his reality: alone, in his grand apartment, eating cereal at a long empty table, is palpable.

“The solitude is quite disturbing,” Ms. Bonnefont said. “We have this idea of him always surrounded by people, but he is very alone.”

Mr. Rousteing saw himself, he said. And that, “being a designer at such a young age, despite the fact fashion gave me my dream, there is a price to pay. You trust less people. And for me, because of being left by what should have been my first love, my mother, that was also hard.”

The film does not have a neat, happy ending, laced-up corset-tight and dripping in diamanté. Though the social worker was able to pass Mr. Rousteing’s file to another office, which searched for and found his birth mother — and learned that she was still in France — it could not legally reveal her name. Instead, he was offered the chance to write a letter that the social workers would deliver to her, giving her the opportunity to decide if she wanted to meet him and reveal herself. Mr. Rousteing, still unsure whether his fear of another rejection outweighs his need to understand that rejection in the first place, has not decided what he will do.

In the meantime, he had been forced to revise his own origin story, and assumptions about himself.

Mr. Rousteing had always, he said, hoped his birth parents were “two young people who were very in love with each other but couldn’t stay together.” He had always assumed he was of mixed race, because of his skin color. Both ideas were wrong. “She was Somalian and he was Ethiopian, which means I am African-African,” Mr. Rousteing said. “I’m black.” It’s discombobulating discovering, in your 30s, that the myths you told yourself your entire life, even if you knew you had made them up, were all wrong.

But, “I don’t want anyone to have pity for me,” Mr. Rousteing said. “I want people to see this as a movie about a fighter who faced the world. There is a real crisis of identity today, it’s hard to be yourself. But maybe the people who see it will understand me more.”

CreditGetty Images for Balmain

When Ms. Bonnefont first screened the film for Mr. Rousteing, he cried. When Mr. Piombini saw the film (he has since watched it two more times), he also cried, he said. In June, Balmain held a private screening for company shareholders — it is owned by Mayhoola for Investments, the Qatari fund backed by the emir — who, Mr. Piombini said, were very supportive.

But Balmain is a business built, under Mr. Rousteing, on the bulletproofing promise of glamour — and the way it is reflected in his own image. Now that the filters and fantasy have been stripped away, is there a risk the message will seem like a fake?

“Will the film have an effect on our business?” Mr. Piombini asked. “I don’t know and I don’t care. But for sure people will look at Olivier in a different way. Fashion is always trying to be very private, very exclusive about the way they share their life. He did the opposite.”

And Mr. Rousteing is not done. Later this fall he and Ms. Bonnefont are scheduled to speak at a conference being organized by the French government about revising the national adoption laws to give children more rights to understand whence they came. She is hoping to sell the movie internationally. And Mr. Rousteing is rethinking, a bit, his approach to his job.

“After the movie, I started to like myself more,” he said. “Instead of feeling like we had to fight for everything, instead of having a Balmain Army — us against the world — I want to bring people in. I want everyone to understand you can have the dream, without perfection. Inclusivity is speaking to not only the fashion elite.”

Yet for all the unfashionable truths he lets out, he’s still engaged in one kind of magical thinking. He is hoping he never has to make that decision about contacting his mother. Because he is hoping — sitting in his town car, preparing for a beauty collaboration with Kylie Jenner made for social media — that instead she may go to the movies sometime in the next few weeks, or turn on Canal Plus (the film is scheduled to be shown on the French premium television channel on Oct. 16, for one night only; then be in theaters in November). And that she will see the man her son has become and contact him herself.

If she does, the next part will stay off the screen.

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