Fashionistas revere influential Spanish couturier in de Young exhibit spotlight 

“Balenciaga and Spain” at the de Young Museum is bringing up decades of history and reminiscences in the worlds of fashion and art.

“When I started to draw fashion in London,” says Academy of Art University fashion director Gladys Perint Palmer, “the editor of British Vogue told me, ‘My dear, all you need is one good Balenciaga coat.’ My first job was a cover for Vogue for which I was paid 20 pounds. Not enough, even then, for even a Balenciaga button.”

Of the many accolades lavished on Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga — whose work and influence are the subject of a de Young exhibit that runs through July — Palmer recalls master embroiderer François Lesage, who said, “Pour moi Balenciaga, c’est l’Escorial” — El Escorial being the king of Spain’s historical residence and a national symbol of the country.

The matter of wearing Balenciaga intersected with American politics when President John F. Kennedy was upset by first lady Jackie Kennedy’s purchase of the designer’s expensive creations. The president was concerned that the public would think it unseemly lavish, yet a potential controversy did not occur — Jackie’s haute couture bills were discreetly paid by her father-in-law, Joseph Kennedy.

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Director John Buchanan Jr. points to local connections of the Balenciaga show, how it is another special exhibit that has roots in the museums’ permanent collection.

“This one naturally draws on the strengths of our costume holdings, containing several exquisite Balenciaga designs once worn by San Francisco’s most well-heeled women, including Mrs. C.H. Russell, Eleanor Christensen de Guigne and Elise S. Haas,” Buchanan says.

Current Balenciaga creative director Nicolas Ghesquiere, born one year before Balenciaga died (the designer lived from 1895-1972), has put his own stamp on fashion, even while following the essence of the founder.

Ghesquiere’s work has “consistently managed to be hard-edged, geometric and rigorously precise, while still allowing for a free play of the feminine,” one review says.

Only 26 when getting the ­prestigious job in 1997, Ghesquiere has completely devoted himself to the service of the brand.

“I have no idea what I would do for my own collection,” he says. “I give so much of myself for Balenciaga that today if you put me in a room and said, ‘Let’s try to do a Nicolas Ghesquiere project,’ I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Exhibit curator Hamish Bowles has a varied and rich history advocating and preserving Balenciaga’s fame. Bowles has been called “a gentleman and a scholar, who can just as easily look royal in 18th-century court dress as he did in Sofia Coppola’s film ‘Marie Antoinette.’”

In Bowles’ catalog for “Balenciaga and Spain,” he writes about some of what made the designer different from others in fashion:

“Unlike many of his fellow Paris-based couturiers [Dior, Pierre Balmain and Jacques Fath among them], whose backgrounds were bourgeois and whose educations were relatively extensive, Balenciaga was largely self-taught and remained surprisingly unworldly.

“He left grammar school at the age of 13 to learn a trade and earn a living to help support his family, eventually joining the Galerías El Louvre in San Sebastián, one of the city’s several Francophile establishments.”

Balenciaga continues to have an international presence in the fashion world. Asian branches are thriving, and Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, who  previously has represented Christian Dior and Victoria’s Secret, has been selected to be the new face of Balenciaga’s summer-wear campaign. The 30-year-old model will juggle her Balenciaga role with being a first-time mother, which, she said, is “challenging and different when everything is not about you.”


Balenciaga and Spain

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

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

Tickets: $15 to $25

Contact: (415) 750-3600,

A few special events

All programs are in the Koret Auditorium at the de Young.

“Balenciaga and Spain” lecture

1 p.m. Saturday:
Longtime de Young docent Ellen Harden gives a free talk on the exhibit.

“From Adrian to Armani: Fashion in Film”

7 p.m. April 15:
Bay Area film critic and media personality Jan Wahl gives a multimedia presentation on connections between movies and haute couture.

“American Masters in Balenciaga’s Era”

10 a.m. May 21:
Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator Kaye Spilker lectures on aesthetic influences, historical events and cultural forces that shaped American style — founded on, but diverging from, the authority and prestige of French haute couture — and emulating the independent character of the American woman. Tickets are $5 to $10 at the door.

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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