Cristóbal Balenciaga's Lost Legacy
As an indisputable couturier of uncompromising standards, Cristóbal Balenciaga radically altered the traditional silhouettes of women's dress. The fluidity of his designs and his ultra-modern shapes enabled him to manipulate the relationship between his clothing and a woman’s body, creating a new silhouette unlike anything the world had seen before. He was respected throughout the fashion world for his knowledge of technique and construction and his unflinching perfectionism—Christian Dior even referred to Balenciaga as "the master of us all." With structural designs that straddle the edge of fashion, Balenciaga cemented his brand as a staple fashion house that forecasted, and continues to forecast, prêt-á-porter fashion for years to come.
While the fashion house is currently experiencing a revitalization under the helm of Demna Gvasalia, elements of Balenciaga's forgotten legacy are becoming once again relevant. The lines between high-fashion and streetwear may continue to fluctuate, but Balenciaga's unyielding design prestige is not to be ignored in the wake of luxe puffers, bejeweled heels, and reconstructed denim jackets.
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Cristóbal Balenciaga was born in the small fishing village of Getaria in the Basque region of Spain on January 21, 1895. Like many of his successors, he spent hours by his mother's side as she worked as a seamstress. After the death of his father, he began studying dressmaking seriously, refining his skills in women’s tailoring to help support his family. The only explanation for Balenciaga's unparalleled abilities was his intensive involvement in the trade. He had a natural talent beyond just design—his powerful, yet delicate hands were ambidextrous, allowing him to cut and sew with both.
The marquesa de Casa Torres, a well-acquainted friend of the Balenciaga family, was one of the first people to take notice of Balenciaga’s talent. To test his skills, the marquesa challenged Balenciaga to recreate one of her best designer suits, which he replicated to perfection with ease. She became one of Balenciaga’s first patrons, allowing him to apprentice for a tailor nearby, where experts and customers alike marveled at the speed at which Balenciaga went about his work—he could fit 180 models in one day. Balenciaga trained earnestly until he was ready to open his own boutique, Eisa, named after his mother.
Over the next 15 years, Balenciaga became the leading couturier in Spain, opening ateliers in Madrid and Barcelona. His designs were favored by the Spanish Royal Family, designing dresses for Queen Victoria Eugenie and Queen Mother Maria Cristina. However, in 1937, the Spanish Civil War disputed Balenciaga's business, forcing him to move to Paris where he opened his first atelier on Avenue George V and later staged his first runway show. Balenciaga’s designs were heavily influenced by the Spanish Renaissance, and the ornamented "jacket of light" traditionally worn by toreadors while bullfighting was referenced throughout. One of his most famous creations, the "Infanta" gown, was inspired by the costumes of young Spanish princesses from portraits by Diego Velázquez.
In 1939, Balenciaga received high praise from the French press as a powerhouse in fashion, making his limited collection highly desirable by both buyers and customers alike. During World War II, clients even risked travel to Europe for a chance to purchase Balenciaga's designs. His celebrated square coat, a garment that features sleeves cut in one piece with the yoke, and anything shown in his ubiquitous color combination of dark lace over bright pink, were in extremely high demand. However, Balenciaga had to contend with this war as well, and was forced to shut down their Paris house when France surrendered to the Nazi's. Hitler despised France for being the so-called fashion exporter of the world, but Lucien Lelong, head of the Chambre Syndicale, negotiated with the Nazis and convinced them to restrain from transferring the Parisian fashion industry to Berlin in exchange for handing over the industry's Jewish population.
With all said and done, Balenciaga continued to thrive. Due in part to his connections with Hitler's ally Franco, Balenciaga was able to reopen his house in September 1940. He produced ingenious outfits suited to wartime conditions—short skirts worn over tight purple jersey bombers with blazers and thick red stockings. His three Spanish storefronts all had access to materials unobtainable in France, reinforcing his Parisian business and allowing a seamless transition following the war. Balenciaga eventually began to streamline his designs, making them more palatable to a broader audience.
While Christian Dior began to popularize the hourglass shape—full-skirted dresses, with emphatic hips, narrow waists, and rounded bosoms—Balenciaga favored fluid lines and broader shoulders that altered the traditional female silhouette. Waistlines were dropped and then raised, becoming independent of the wearer's natural waistline. Balenciaga soon gained international recognition by an array of high-profile clients such as Gloria Guinness, Mona von Bismarck, and Jackie Kennedy. During the 1960s, John F. Kennedy and Jackie even got into several fights during his presidency, thinking the American public would find Jackie's Balenciaga purchases too extravagant. Over the course of 1952, notable figures Oscar de la Renta, Pierre Cardin, and Emanuel Ungaro began working in the atelier, while Hubert de Givenchy later became a protégé of Balenciaga.
The following decade saw some of Balenciaga's most famous work. In 1953, he introduced the balloon jacket, an elegant sphere that encased the upper body and provided a pedestal for the wearer's head. 1955 saw the unveil of the tunic, which later developed into the chemise dress in 1958. A few years later, Balenciaga designed an array of avant-garde structural dresses like the high-waisted baby doll dress, the cocoon coat, the balloon skirt, and the sack dress. Neither the sack dress not the chemise dress had a discernible waist, but both were considered universally flattering. By 1959, Balenciaga' culminated in the Empire line, a collection of high-waisted dresses and coats cut like kimonos. With each of these design innovations, Balenciaga achieved what is arguably the most important contribution to women's fashion: a new silhouette.
As Balenciaga innovated the traditional structure of women's dress, he also challenged the standard conventions of the fashion industry. In 1957, Balenciaga famously decided to show his collection to the press a day before the clothing retail delivery date. This was a controversial move, as standard practice was to show four weeks before the retail delivery date, but by keeping the press unaware of his designs, Balenciaga hoped to curtail ongoing piracy of his designs. The press resisted, claiming it was impossible to get their work in by print deadlines, but Balenciaga and his protege, Givenchy, stood firm. Some of Balenciaga’s proponents argued that his rival Christian Dior would gain acclaim from copying Balenciaga's silhouettes, but eventually, both designers reversed their decision and joined the traditional schedule.
Balenciaga defiantly resisted the rules, guidelines, and status of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne. Coming from humble beginnings, Balenciaga despised the bourgeois nature of high-fashion—an ideal reflected in his attitude towards Dior, whom Balenciaga often thought took too much sheer pleasure from fashion instead of viewing it as an art. The elitist nature of the Chambre Syndicale and the actions they took following France's surrender to the Nazis disgusted Balenciaga. He refused to be part of an organization that valued its reputation more than the people they employ. Although he is spoken of with immense reverence, Balenciaga couture was never haute couture.
Throughout the 1960s, Balenciaga continued to demonstrate his penchant for innovation by means of fabric selection, yet he failed to encapsulate the ubiquity that his previous dresses were able to evoke. His experimental use of bold materials, heavy cloths, and ornate embroideries led him to work with the Swiss fabric house of Abraham. The two developed silk gazar, a refinement which miraculously combined fine texture, thickness, and stiffness and allowed Balenciaga to sculpt dresses without artificial support. Balenciaga also began using special materials like mohair and chenille and occasionally he would reinforce the thread with horsehair. However, while Balenciaga was continuously innovating his garments, critics found the dresses so overwhelming that they "dwarfed the woman," but Balenciaga continued designing despite this growing criticism.
Balenciaga once again found himself in an uncompromising position and halted all wholesale. His individual clientele flourished, but with the recent death of Dior and growing criticism of his work, Balenciaga was an increasingly disillusioned. He no longer felt the same passion for his trade that he used to, and this, coupled with new tax rules and labor regulations, made it disagreeable for him to run his business. Abruptly, Balenciaga retired, shut down his Paris house, and returned to Spain.
Balenciaga died in 1972, melancholy and isolated, a great artist fractured by time, and a casualty of 1960s lunacy. The fashion house laid dormant until 1986 when Jacques Bogart S.A. acquired the rights to Balenciaga and released a new ready-to-wear line, "Le Dix," designed by Michael Goma, who remained at the house until 1992 when he was replaced by Joseph Thimister. Thimister quickly began restoring Balenciaga to its original high-fashion status. During this time, Nicolas Ghesquiére joined as a licensed designer and eventually was promoted to head designer in 1997. Over the next two decades, both Alexander Wang (2012-2015) and Demna Gvasalia (2015-present) came on board as creative directors and have since restored the fashion house's reputation as a trend forecaster, provocatively blurring the lines between high-fashion and streetwear.
Perhaps Balenciaga would be disappointed with what his house has become—he was a somber man and a modernist who hated the commercial functions of fashion and strived for godly perfection in the microscopic nuances of dressmaking. While the fashion house is now synonymous with irony and internet culture, Cristobal Balenciaga discarded all intentions of fashion save pure craftsmanship. By nature, Gvasalia is never going to be the isolated designer-visionary that flings out sketches and designs from behind closed doors. Balenciaga was a couturier, Gvasalia is a personality and designer. Most importantly, however, both figures are disrupters of the fashion system— this is the essence of Balenciaga and arguably its most crucial attribute.
It would be unfair to compare the achievements of Balenciaga and Gvasalia or even the direction of the fashion house under their respective supervision. Gvasalia understands and admires Balenciaga's legacy as an intransigent couturier, honoring his work through a variety of ingenious design techniques. Just as Gvasalia acknowledges Balenciaga's storied past, we need to do the same. High-fashion essentially ended with Balenciaga's retirement, and with it went the tradition of craftsmanship. The fashion industry continues to thrive as a polycentric and multicultural entity, but on a much larger scale. It is improbable that the kinds of dresses Balenciaga created in the 1950s and 1960s will ever be made again— these dresses are a testament to everything fashion should be, and everything it is not. Balenciaga forever changed the status quo of high-fashion and couture, continuously deviating and innovating to create a lasting impression on an industry commonly misconstrued as elitist and permissive.