“Haute couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We, other couturiers, are the musicians and we follow the directions he gives.” This is how Christian Dior, his maximum competitor in sales numbers, described Cristobal Balenciaga.
Shy, perfectionist to the heaviest human limits and devoted to couture, he was always hiding from cameras and also avoided all interviews. In fact, he was one of a few that attended Coco Chanel’s funeral and actually was his last public appearance. He was never entering into fights and competitions. His goal was always to become what a couturier had to be: “An architect for design, a sculptor for shape, a painter for colour, a musician for harmony and philosopher for temperance”, as he said.
Coco, that was always in need of attention and got into many troubles for her strong character, loved Balenciaga. She even once said: “Only he is capable of cutting material, assembling a creation, and sewing it by hand. The others are simply fashion designers”.
Balenciaga was both a designer and a craftsman, something not so common within couture designers, neither at those times. He was involved with the details of the garment through its whole process of elaboration. He collaborated with textile factories to create the specific effect on the fabric he was looking for. He was very concerned with texture and volume. Therefore, factories created special fabrics for him. This is why he was sometimes against trends because it wouldn’t flatter the client. He preferred to play and experiment with fabric, to perfection his own ideas.
Balenciaga was born in Getaria, Spain, in 1895. His father was a fisherman and his mother a seamstress. As a child, Balenciaga often spent time with her as she was working. When he was only 12 years old, he began working as the apprentice of a tailor. The Marchioness de casa Torres, a noblewoman in his town, became his customer when he was still a teenager. She sent him to Madrid where he was formally trained for tailoring.
In 1913 he worked at El Louvre of San Sebastian, where he was named the top retailer. Six years later, he opened his first store with his own name in San Sebastian and started dressing the royal family and also began to visit Paris frequently, where his name started gaining popularity.
In tribute to his mother, in 1931 he renamed the shop with the name of Eisa. He did the same with the ones in Madrid, opened in 1933, and in Barcelona, in 1935.
Even if he was dressing high society people, the Spanish Civil War forced him to close his 3 shops all together. Balenciaga decided to move to Paris, where he already had loyal customers. He opened his store on Avenue George V with help from his friends, and presented his first collection in August 1936. Buyers and press were anticipating the arrival of this new collection given the good reputation Balenciaga had gained in the last 20 years. “Wonderful collection, with fabrics with violet, black and white tones for evening wear”, described a radio station, commenting on the collection.
Balenciaga was not only able to survive the civil war, but also to maintain his status as a Spanish designer in Paris. For 31 years, Balenciaga was the only Spanish designer in Paris.
When also the Second World War was over, Paris fashion went for modern designs, bright colours, lots of fabric and very feminine dresses. Balenciaga produced great creations of lace, velvet, sequined satin and lots of new hats.
In 1946, he designed the Bolero (bullfighting) jacket as a feminine garment, inspired by his Spanish roots. Balenciaga was known for the usage of fabrics and colours of his natal country. Balenciaga introduced the usage of a Bolero for women and it was a huge success.
In those years, Dior introduced the famous “new look”, but failed to reach the same popularity and reputation as Balenciaga, that even Dior called “The master of all of us”.
During his golden age, he got total recognition around the world. His creations were all in volume, like the famous ‘balloon’ dresses and the ‘sack dress and coat’, which even nowadays inspire the genderless designers like Comme des Garçons or even Tom Ford in certain collections.
One of Balenciaga’s greatest desires was the search for the perfect sleeve. He believed that a sleeve should adhere to the body, be its natural extension and fall without any flaw. The perfect sleeve should be a living sculpture, beautiful to behold, a discreet play of subtle folds ensuring comfort. The arm should be able to slide in naturally.
It was as if the construction of the garment crystallized entirely around the sleeves. Balenciaga created the right look without ever sacrificing beauty to utility.
In 1958 he also gave birth to an iconic garment even nowadays, the babydoll. He applied this name to a group of short flounced lace dresses, with no waistline. The creation of the baby-doll dresses represented the admiration Balenciaga had for black lace, a fabric used by the Spanish marquees in the XVIII century. Later on, came the peacock dress, shorter in the front than in the back.
He made so many garments until he retired, even the costumes of the hostesses from Air France, that when he retired due to the impact of fast fashion in the late sixties, he kept being one of the most admired designers from Fashion Creative Directors all over the word, as he is still nowadays. He returned to Spain in the late sixties and dedicated his spare time to teach Fashion Design.
Cristobal Balenciaga passed away in 1972 due to heart failure in Javea (Alicante) a little after designing his last gown for the young Princess María del Carmen Martínez of Bourbon when she married Alfonso, Duke of Anjou and Cadiz and Grandson of King Alfonso XIII of Spain.
Balenciaga was a very religious man and passed a lot of his time in cathedrals and churches, where he saw religious paintings and sculptures that without a doubt influenced his work later on. The same happened with the Spanish artists of the Spanish Renaissance, like Goya and Velázquez, who inspired directly some of his most known dresses. Last year, the Thyssen Museum of Art in Madrid did a big exhibition on how the Spanish Art influenced Balenciaga. It was a unique experience to see all those paintings, that came from all over the world, next to his garments, some of them from private collections.
Moreover, he had his natal country always in mind and was inspired by the romance and the mystery of his own country. He had his childhood roots present at all times, and often made a statement through these, like the mentioned Bolero jacket or the collarless shirts and wide shoulders.
For those who like movies, an interesting fact: Balenciaga was first offered to design the clothing for Audrey Hepburn in the movie Sabrina in 1954, but for unknown reasons he declined the offer. The offer was later on accepted by Balenciaga’s student, Hubert de Givenchy, who’s designs were greatly influenced by him.
Text by Anna Tomàs