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Society has a rather precarious relationship with fashion because of the reality of its exploitation of marginalised people and many other human rights violations. Paradoxically, fashion has and can be used as a force for social change. 

As the who’s who of the global fashion and entertainment world flock to the bright lights of one of the fashion capital cities for Paris fashion week against the backdrop of the Russia and Ukraine conflict I am very interested to see if any of the fashion giants will make any political statement in their showing. After recently watching Balmain’s Creative Director Olivier Rousteing’s docufilm ‘Wonder Boy’ my eyes are on the Balmain show, particularly after all the reports of the horrific racial discrimination experienced by Africans trying to flee the warzone. 

Wonder Boy initially premiered in France on the 27th of November 2019 and on 26th June 2021 on Netflix. The 99-minute long docufilm chronicling Olivier Rousteing’s journey in uncovering his biological lineage was directed and written by Anissa Bonnefont. 

In 2011 Olivier Rousteing seemingly burst into the fashion scene out of nowhere when he was named creative director of Balmain. At the young age of 25, Olivier’s appointment made him the youngest person since Yves Saint-Laurent and the only person of colour to run a brand of this stature. Olivier went on to transform Balmain into a major international player, building relationships and a fanbase with Hollywood royalty including the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West, Kelly Rowland, Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, and Chris Brown.

To his over 5 million Instagram followers Rousteing’s carefully curated pictures communicated a story of opulence, access, and riches yet the designer’s lived reality was filled with questions that haunted his life at all hours of the day. While the cliff notes of Rousteing’s origin story were known to some, no one knew of or understood the inner turmoil, void and endless questions that his closed adoption caused him. The more famous he got, the lonelier and deeper the void felt and the more lost felt as an African raised by well resourced White French parents. 

I was recently speaking with one of my adopted African American little sisters on the phone and she said, “Lebo, people always focus on the gains of adoption, no one stops to consider the loss that comes with gaining a family that is not culturally, racially or biologically yours.” Her words haunted me as I watched Olivier wrestle with similar complexities.   

“When your parents don’t want you, you wonder what you’re doing here.”

Olivier Rousteing

The wounds of an adopted person run deep. Not enough people talk about the multi-layered levels of loss adopted people are haunted by every day. As creatives, we draw a large percentage of our purpose and inspiration from our biological and cultural lineage. I cannot even begin to imagine the deep pain and void that comes with not knowing your biological lineage, frankly, it sounds straight-up torturous. “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?” Rousteing can be heard asking himself in the film. 

“As long as I don’t know who I am, I can’t love myself.” 

Olivier Rousteing

One of the scenes that touched the core of me was when Olivier was reflecting on a conversation he had had with the caseworker from the adoption agency that Rousteing was working with to trace his biological lineage. “One thing that touched me today that felt really…nice. She said my mother was slim… it’s the first time I’ve ever been told I look like someone.” Makes me think of how many of us are privileged to grow up being told every other day who we resemble in our family. It happens so frequently I remember having countless conversations with my friends about how annoying it was – but can you imagine never being told you resemble someone for thirty-two- years of life?  

Olivier’s empathy was never clearer than when he mourned for the child that his mother was when she fell pregnant with and had him. The thought of the multiple traumas her pregnancy and his adoption must have caused her moved him to tears. It doesn’t completely absolve her from his wounds of rejection – but that’s the complex beauty of life when it’s lived authentically. It’s messy and nonsensical and Rousteing’s designs are reflective of this complexity. The beauty and hard lines that dominate his design aesthetic speak to his lived reality and bend towards empathy. 

There’s so much more that I can and want to say about Olivier’s African heritage but I need to not be selfish and allow you to uncover it all for yourself as you immerse yourself in the dichotomy that Anissa Bonnefont was able to capture and masterfully convey through Wonder Boy. I will however repeat the fact that I am very keen to see how Olivier’s newfound African connection will show up in how he addresses the current racial discrimination of Africans in Ukraine.