Cristóbal Balenciaga – remembering the Spanish couturier Featured

Almost 40 years after Balenciaga's death we take a retrospective look at the designs that made fashion history

“A fashion designer must be an architect for perspectives, a sculptor for shapes, a painter for colour, a musician for harmony, and a philosopher for a sense of proportion.” This is how Cristóbal Balenciaga saw the world around him. He was one of the greatest minds in the golden age of Haute Couture. His career spanned over fifty years, starting in San Sebastían, conquering Paris and concluding in his native Spain. This man was responsible for taking fashion to a previously unimagined level. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Chanel, Dior and Balmain, it was for Mr. Balenciaga that the crowds waited for.

“In the earlier part of my life, many many years ago, I can almost say I worked at the House of Balenciaga,” said Oscar de la Renta, a former apprentice to the Spanish designer. “I had the tremendous privilege of going and seeing how a master works. He was a tremendous craftsman.” Christian Dior was heard to comment that “only Balenciaga would be capable of producing such perfection” upon seeing one of the couturier’s suits. His garments, reminiscent of traditional Imperial Spain, had an impeccable craftsmanship that could be handed down from mother to daughter. At the time it was said that ‘a Balenciaga lasts forever.’ Gabrielle Chanel put it better, saying that “Balenciaga is a true couturier; only he is able to cut fabric, assemble it and sew it with his own hands. The others are merely draftsmen.”

“He was the couturier who influenced me the most,” commented Christian Lacroix. “His use of materials, the graphic silhouette, the use of black and the influence of the Spanish Renaissance, lace, the pure opulence.” Diana Vreeland, an authority in fashion authority from the 1930s to the 1970s described him as “the true son of a strong country filled with style, vibrant colour, and a fine history, who remained forever a Spaniard. His inspiration came from the bullrings, the flamenco dancers, the fishermen in their boots and loose blouses, the glories of the church, and the cool of the cloisters and monasteries. He took their colours, their cuts, then festooned them to his own taste.” And this is quite visible from his legendary infanta dress to his boleros, his use of colour, and exquisite fabrics including velvet, satin and lace.

“Balenciaga created not only a style but a technique,” said Hubert de Givenchy “He was the architect of Haute Couture.” It was his unique designs that etched his name on the highest pillars of the world of couture, iconic garments including the cocoon coat, balloon dress, baby-doll dress, egg-shaped coat, ‘petale’ or sari dresses. Whatever he made quickly became a must-have. According to UK photographer Cecil Beaton, Balenciaga “created the future for fashion.” Diana Vreeland said that “in a Balenciaga you were the only woman in the room.”

His clients included Mona Von Bismark, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Onassis and Queen Fabiola of Belgium, to mention just a few. Back then, rumour had it that Ms. Von Bismark commissioned 150 dresses from Balenciaga in one sitting. It was also said that upon hearing that the couturier had closed his Paris workshop she locked herself inside her home to mourn for three days. Jackie Kennedy was said to have her bills paid by her father-in-law to avoid falling prey to rumours of her high spending for clothes. The famous golden sari dress worn by Elizabeth Taylor after her cinema role as Cleopatra will soon be auctioned by Christies, in mint condition. Balenciaga’s last commission was the wedding dress for General Franco's granddaughter, which he delivered two weeks before his death.

Close friend and fellow couturier Christian Dior best described Balenciaga’s contribution to the fashion industry in the following words: “Haute Couture is like an orchestra, whose only conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians that follows his directions.” He called him “the master of us all.”

Images provided by the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa
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