Europe’s historic fashion houses are leaning into heritage this season, and Balmain is no exception. Olivier Rousteing has been excavating Balmain’s history over the past few years, notably surfacing a Labyrinth monogram that quickly became a strong franchise for the house alongside knitwear and its heavily embellished cocktail attire.

For fall 2023, Rousteing dug back nearly to the start of Pierre Balmain, established in 1945 with its New French Style, and also zeroed in on the founder’s pinch-waisted Jolie Madame silhouette from 1953, even providing archival photos and press notes laden with the couturier’s words of wisdom.

Taking a break from wide, pagoda shoulders and freaky Frankenstein boots, although he still wears them himself, the designer interpreted more demure, mid-century silhouettes with a deft hand.

He added his own flourishes — hacking off the shoulders of a Jolie Madame jacket to create a sculptural corset, and he finished off many looks with pants, either shoe-swallowing flares, like the ones he was wearing backstage, or velvet capris. There were also Dior-esque full-circle skirts, which have been popping up on many runways this season, even from so-called edgy designers.

This Balmain show was a civilized affair with free-flowing Champagne, plush banquettes, 250 guests max, and Frank Sinatra crooning — a far cry from its recent stadium spectacles with musical performers, mojitos in plastic cups, and exaggerated creations visible from the nosebleed seats.

“Intimacy,” Rousteing said, citing a wish to dial down the fireworks around fashion to focus on “the quality of the clothes” and timelessness. “So this is an homage to Paris,” he said, leading a visitor past the models backstage and pointing to the little capes, the moire patterns, the bows and other “codes of the house.”

Rousteing conscripted Stephen Jones to make the hats, interpretations of the founder’s most famous couture toppers. This heightened the period look of the silhouettes, and not always in the best way.

But seeing the clothes up close heightened appreciation for the atelier’s capabilities, and the quieter end of Rousteing’s design expression — the way a crystal minidress was reduced to one big fan of ruffles; the way he scattered polka dots haphazardly on silk separates, or pearls over cozy knits and a flaring velvet coat.

Humorous accessories — a PB-logo toolbox for the pussy-bow denim blouse and jeans; a bag shaped like a camera for a beret-topped velvet ensemble — added moments of levity and sly humor.

There was a perfume of Jean Paul Gaultier to the sculpted bustiers with their padded hips and conical breasts, a carryover from his one-off couture collection for Gaultier last July. “Gaultier is part of my history now,” he shrugged. “I learned so much from the craftsmanship there.”

A case in point was the nearly sheer, minimalist cape that closed the show, composed of faceted crystals strung together, like a couture version of a beaded curtain. It was truly dazzling.

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