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Out on Netflix as of June 26, Wonder Boy stands out in the fashion documentary genre as uncommonly revealing. Of course, as it follows a year in the life of Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing, there’s glamour and glitz aplenty, from runway shows to cameos by fans of the house like Kim Kardashian West and Jennifer Lopez. But the main arc of the movie concerns the designer’s search to uncover the story of how he came to be adopted, poignantly capturing the ache he feels about never knowing his biological mother and the tears that flow when he finally learns a few details: that his biological dad was Ethiopian and his mom Somalian, and that she became pregnant with Rousteing at age 14.
The film — directed by Anissa Bonnefont, who had final cut — presents a deeply personal portrait of a man whose introduction to the fashion scene was as a wunderkind, having taken the lead at Balmain in 2011 at just 24 years old. He quickly carved out a devoted following of A-listers thanks to a maximalist brand aesthetic that can veer from the baroque to the space age, and his custom looks have been worn by everyone from Kardashian West and Kanye West at the Met Gala to Beyoncé at her culture-shifting Coachella performances. He’s become a star himself with the help of Instagram, where he often posts playful selfies for 6.6 million followers. The out designer is also one of only three Black men to ever head a French fashion house. (Balmain, founded in 1945 by legendary designer Pierre Balmain, is today owned by Mayhoola for Investments, a Qatari investment fund that also owns Valentino.)
Rousteing, 35, spoke to THR as his atelier was at work finishing some custom pieces destined for the Cannes red carpet as well as preparing for his September runway show in Paris, which will celebrate his 10th anniversary at Balmain. Says Rousteing, “There are not so many designers that [can] celebrate a decade at a house.”
Your most recent resort collection brings in African influences in a way you’ve never done before. What was the inspiration?
This collection feels really personal because I discovered my origins, which I didn’t know for 30 years. I was raised in Bordeaux, a really conservative city, but at the same time it was important to show the multicultural aspect that I have in my blood. It’s my vision of being a citizen of the world, being proudly French, proudly half Ethiopian, proudly half Somalian. This is the new France because I had to fight for so many years in my childhood to be recognized as French.
What was your childhood like, growing up Black with two white parents?
I had a lot of racism and criticism [at] school or from parents of my friends. I have been rejected a lot because maybe I was not corresponding to their standard. So they call me bastard. They didn’t get the beauty of my family.
Having experienced that, to what do you attribute your resilience?
It’s the love of my parents. No matter what, you know that your real parents are your adopted parents.
At the same time, as the film explores, you have this drive to find your birth mother. Can you talk about that?
At one point I say, “Why am I here if my parents didn’t want me?” It’s the sentence that kind of is always in my head. What I can say is that there is something in your heart that hurts you because you don’t belong anywhere. So you’re always looking for love, love, love, being recognized, love, being recognized.
Was it hard to be so open about your life with the cameras rolling?
Many, many times I wanted to give up. But at the same time, I thought I can [represent] so many kids that have been adopted. Maybe this documentary will help people from all around the world to say that no matter where you come from, what matters is where you want to go.
Since the film came out, have you gotten any more information about your biological parents?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t. The weirdest thing, when you have success, is that you have so many women who pretended that they were my mother. It’s really hurtful.
The film is quite a contrast to the fun, glamorous image you present on Instagram.
You know, I got the job of being creative director at 24 years old. I was really young and I tried really to be what we call the perfect designer. Never do a wrong step, always under the spotlights of fashion. So I really kind of crystallized myself, if I can say, into a kind of box of just the glamour of Olivier and the glamour of Balmain. Everything is sparkle. Everything is shiny. There’s never a sadness. It’s like a party all night long, or all life long in a way. This is maybe a character that I wanted to play because I was hiding all my fears. And I was just like, I’m going to break that image that I created of myself.
What are some of your personal highlights in dressing stars on the red carpet at Cannes?
I think the beauty of Cannes is that I dressed French actresses that I was dreaming to meet one day, like Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard, Sophie Marceau. I was the one to watch Cannes with my parents in the living room [on TV] when I was 8 years old. And the fact that one day I went to Cannes on the red carpet, it’s obviously a dream come true.
How important has Hollywood been to your success?
I have to say that I think America opened their arms more than France at the beginning. American people maybe understood me better, and American actresses and singers were maybe more supportive.
What are you hoping your next 10 years look like?
I just hope to feel free, as much as I feel free today. I have wings and I’m flying. So the moment I feel that someone is trying to cut my wings, I will move on and change. Is it going to be fashion? Is it going to be music? Is it going to be movies? Maybe in 10 years we will have a different conversation.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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