Cristobal Balenciaga’s unique, classic designs could pass for modern 

What makes Cristobal Balenciaga unique among designers?

Gladys Perint Palmer, the executive director of fashion for the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, has a simple answer: “Any 50-year-old Balenciaga coat or ball gown could be worn today — and judging by designers who copy the great master, many of us are wearing knockoffs.”

“Balenciaga and Spain,” which opens Saturday at the de Young Museum, honors an artist whose influence is uniquely widespread and lasting. The show was conceived by Oscar de la Renta, who began his career working for Balenciaga in Madrid, and is curated by Hamish Bowles, the editor-at-large of European Vogue magazine.

Bowles’ own collection is part of the show, featuring garments commissioned and worn by fashion icons such as Doris Duke, Baroness Pauline de Rothschild, Countess Mona Bismarck, the Bay Area’s Eleanor Christensen de Guigne and Elise Haas.

The de Young show — featuring some 120 Balenciaga-designed haute couture garments, hats and headdresses — follows an exhibition in New York City last year, but is expanded to include 30 pieces from the House of Balenciaga in Paris.

Called “the Picasso of Fashion,” Balenciaga (1895-1972) was known for unique, groundbreaking clothes, such as his “square coat” in which the sleeves are cut in a single piece with the yoke, and unprecedented designs combining black lace and pink fabric.

Unlike many designers who followed the herd, Balenciaga stayed away from trade associations and eschewed business customs and industry traditions. Still, his fame spread wide throughout his career. Trade publications reported his death with the headline, “The king is dead.”

Balenciaga’s influence runs from before World War II to House of Balanciaga-designed dresses worn by Jennifer Connelly and Nicole Kidman at the 2006 Academy Awards ceremony.

Balenciaga, Vogue editor Bettina Ballard wrote, “believed in the unquestionable elegance of black and white, in the color of the Spanish earth and rocks and olive trees, in the red of the bullring, in the effective accent of turquoise, in the Goya combination of black with beige, gray with black, and in yellow.”

The de Young exhibit explores the influence on the designer of Spain’s culture, history and traditions in six sections: art, regional dress, the court, religious live and ceremony, bullfight and dance.

Four leading costume scholars are participating in a symposium on the show’s opening day. Bowles, Miren Arzalluz, Lourdes Font and Pamela Golbin present lectures in Koret Auditorium from 1 to 4 p.m.


Balenciaga and Spain

Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Opens Saturday; 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays and until 8:45 p.m. Fridays; closed Mondays; closes July 4

Tickets: $15 to $25

Contact: (415) 750-3600,

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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