Publicity-shy to the point of reclusive, monastically devoted to his craft and boundlessly inventive in a realm that often rewards brash showmanship and market-tuned imitation, the Spaniard Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) was an improbable figure to dominate the fiercely competitive world of 20th-century Parisian haute couture. But dominate he did for more than three decades, from 1937 to 1968, with designs of unequaled elegance, searching innovation, technical mastery and lyrical grace.
“Haute couture is like an orchestra, for which only Balenciaga is the conductor,” said Christian Dior, his most formidable rival. “The rest of us are just musicians, following the directions he gives us.” The English photographer and designer Cecil Beaton called him “fashion’s Picasso,” noting that “underneath all of his experiments with the modern, Balenciaga has a deep respect for tradition and a pure classic line.”
His impact and influence were immense, not only on other designers but on the broader fashion zeitgeist. “Almost every woman, directly or indirectly,” declared Harper’s Bazaar in 1940, “has worn a Balenciaga.”
He made his mark not by establishing a generic house style and then tweaking it from one collection to the next, as many designers did. Instead, Balenciaga kept pressing on to new modes of seeing clothing and flattering the female form. And yet no matter how far he roamed, his distinctive touch — what the writer Celia Bertin called “the continuity of his style” — endured.
Tapping the deep roots of his Spanish heritage, Balenciaga found inspiration in flamenco and Velázquez paintings, clerical vestments and bullfighters’ boleros. Later, in designs that re-envisioned the female silhouette with fluid and emphatic gestures that flouted the traditional waistline, he created his unfitted middy blouse and tunic dress, the barrel-line jacket and balloon dress.
Balenciaga continued to expand the envelope over the years, with designs that invoked Picasso and Miró or reimagined the baby-doll dress. In 1952, he devised the pillbox hat. Vogue described a buoyant 1957 mohair dress as “almost the equivalent of bubble bath in froth.” He worked in new materials and synthetics while still employing his mastery of velvet and lace, damask and satin. His color sense was sublime throughout a long and multifaceted career.
By turns sumptuously sculptural, deceptively simple and audaciously abstract, his dresses were at once striking works of art in various styles and consistently user-friendly. His clients — including Pauline de Rothschild, Helena Rubinstein and the Duchess of Windsor — loved wearing Balenciaga’s superbly made clothes. They looked beautiful in them and felt pampered and at ease.
Interviewed in her Madrid apartment last fall, longtime Balenciaga client Sonsoles Diez de Rivera recalled a yellow dress the designer made for her, a piece she still owns. “That dress has only the two seams where you put it on,” she said. “It just clings to your body so perfectly, and it’s so comfortable to wear. The dresses of Balenciaga are nearly more beautiful on the inside than the outside.”
It’s an astute and telling remark. A defining feature of Balenciaga’s work is its structural integrity, the soundness of the garments’ construction from the inside out. Whether he was capturing the flare of a flamenco dancer’s skirt in a stiff silk gauze or creating a tiny margin of air between a woman’s body and the dress for a floating and flowing effect, Balenciaga, who began his career as a tailor’s apprentice, was a peerless craftsman. Almost alone among his contemporaries, he continued to cut and personally make clothes throughout his career. Coco Chanel called Balenciaga “the only couturier.” All the others, she said, “are just draughtsmen.”
Balenciaga came to his calling early. Born to a family of very modest means in the Basque fishing town of Guetaria on Jan. 21, 1895, he made his first coat at age 6. His client was the family cat. At 11, he stopped an elegant woman of the town, the Marquesa de Casa Torres, and asked if he could make a copy of the Parisian suit she was wearing. He did, and well enough for her to wear it.
After his father’s death in 1906, which forced his mother to find work as a seamstress, Cristóbal went to work for a local tailor at age 13. At 17, he made a wedding dress for his cousin. Two years later, he opened his first dressmaking shop, in San Sebastián. Soon thereafter he expanded to Barcelona and Madrid. With an eye on the fashion capital of Paris, he bought pieces by Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet and other French designers for inspiration. His clients included members of Spain’s royal family.
Political turmoil uprooted him. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Balenciaga fled first to London and then went to Paris. In 1937, at 10 Avenue Georges V, the House of Balenciaga opened for business. The place was serious, almost sepulchral in atmosphere. The workrooms were hushed. Models were forbidden to show their teeth when they smiled. The business was extremely well — and privately — run. By the late 1950s, the house was running a higher profit margin than Dior’s, which had six times the number of Balenciaga’s employees.
The house closed for a while during World War II. The 1948 death of a beloved friend and colleague, the Franco-Russian milliner Vladzio Zawrorowski d’Attainville, shook Balenciaga so badly that he considered closing down again. In 1968, the year the student riots inflamed Paris, Balenciaga abruptly shuttered his business for good. He granted a single press interview in 1971 and died of a heart attack the following year, on March 23, 1972.
“The King is Dead,” mourned the trade journal Women’s Wear Daily. No one in the fashion world, and the wider universe of cultivated taste, would have thought that an overstatement.
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