Madrid acted as a muse for Balenciaga 

MADRID — Standing by a softly lit display of Balenciaga dresses at the Museo del Traje (Museum of Fashion and Costumes), curator Concha Herranz admired the contours of a sleek black evening gown. It appeared to be made from a single piece of supple, molded fabric.

“[Cristóbal] Balenciaga cut in a way that used as few seams as possible,” Herranz explained through an interpreter. “See how he draws the dress out of the material? He was an architect of fashion.”

Another example of the master’s work caught the curator’s eye, for the play of stiff and pliable materials and decorative flourishes that recall a bullfighter’s costume. Still another dress — with a prettily scalloped scarlet neckline, primly gathered waist and a cascade of creamy folded silk that reached the floor — looked “very theatrical, like a movie dress” to Herranz. It made her think of Holy Week. “You can just imagine someone carrying candles,” she mused.

Balenciaga sets the imagination aloft. Here in the country’s largest city, where Balenciaga ran one of his three Spanish dressmaking shops before moving to Paris, a visitor can find many of the sights and cultural wellsprings that fed his vibrant, meticulous and quintessentially Spanish art.

Click on the photo to the right to see sights from around Madrid.

Some of those influences are in plain view. Visit the Museo del Prado and there are the magnificently robed saints by Zurbarán that combine holiness and visual high drama. Balenciaga knew them well. At the choice Sorolla Museum, paintings by the Spanish Impressionist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida brim over with sparkling light and depictions of the boldly colored native costumes the couturier often incorporated into his designs.

Inside Madrid’s grand bullfighting arena, which commands the Plaza Monumental de las Ventas, a museum displays splendid 19th- and 20th-century matador costumes, capes, caps and other items of ceremonial combat between man and beast. Balenciaga admired and emulated the lavish embroidery and lustrous gold braiding on exhibit here. And even though he disliked the spectacle of bullfighting itself, its high-stakes theatricality — vividly preserved in the majestic bulls’ heads on the walls and the bloodied suit revered matador Manolete wore the day he died in the ring in 1947 — was intrinsic to Balenciaga’s bold aesthetic.

The forces that shaped Balenciaga live on in every neighborhood, in dress shops, flamenco dance studios and the cramped apartment of lacemaker Elena Díaz García. Seated at a dining room table, where she and her husband were creating a lace first-communion dress that would take months to make, Díaz García remarked on Balenciaga’s skill at incorporating lace into his designs.

“He took traditional lace and made it look modern,” she said, a swarm of wooden bobbins clicking gently as she spoke and worked.

Then she made a deeper connection, between the aspiration of her craft and his.

“What differentiates him from the other great couturiers,” said the lacemaker, “was the fineness of his stitching, the ability to hide the sewing and hide the seams and achieve the perfection others were not able to do.”

Bullfighting tailor Antonio Lopez Fuentes offered another perspective. As his male clients came and went from his shop, piled high with resplendent capes and trajes des luces (suits of light), Fermin emerged from the workroom with a tape measure around his neck. After speaking for a while about material that must be sturdy and bloodstain-resistant for the combat of the ring, the tailor imagined Balenciaga’s synthesizing point of view.

“When you think of cut and the narrow waist of these costumes,” said Lopez Fuentes, “there is a certain feminine characteristic of the bullfighter.” Then the doorbell rang, and a Mexican matador came in to pick up his suit.

Almost 40 years after his death, Balenciaga is braided into the broad stream of Spanish cultural life. And for some, he’s etched into the mind’s eye of memory. Receiving guests at the Royal Suite of the Madrid Ritz, the designer’s grandnephew Agustín Medina Balenciaga described his famous relative as private, self-contained and “aware of his own talent” yet “not vulnerable to compliments.”

At heart, he went on, this artist who spent his life making women look gorgeous “was a mystic person. The work he did was always about a rigorous search for beauty.”

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Steven Winn

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