He bestowed an exquisite sense of self on the women who wore his designsby / May 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Paris fashion week this year was an unusually fretful affair, tainted by accusations of racism among casting directors and reports of models locked for hours in an unlit stairwell. But the couture story of the week was Balenciaga, which, under its creative director, Demna Gvasalia and his predecessors Nicolas Ghesquière and Alexander Wang, has become one of the most sought-after names in high fashion. Driven by the sales of “It” bags and high-end prêt-à-porter, the label’s new-found popularity is a return to the cult status that the house enjoyed in the mid-20th century under its founder, the couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga.
Little about the house that bears his name or the 21st-century milieu of fast fashion—wraith-thin models, attention-deficit Instagramming and frantic publicity-seeking—would be familiar to Balenciaga. He was a man of such resolute reticence that it was rumoured he didn’t exist. He never took a bow at the end of his collections, rarely met his clients and gave only two interviews. Yet 45 years after his death in 1972, his influence remains profound. Not just in the acknowledgement of his legacy in the reinterpreted archive designs of recent collections, including Gvasalia’s, but in the radical ideas about form and structure, and the technical innovations of fabric and cutting that descend in a direct line from his disciples—Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro and Andrè Courrèges—to contemporary designers such as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Phoebe Philo of Celine and JW Anderson.
When the house of Balenciaga abruptly closed its doors during the Paris évènements of 1968, it was as though a great monument had toppled. Balenciaga’s clients, wealthy society women on either side of the Atlantic, were aghast. Diana Vreeland, the maverick grande dame of American fashion, was staying on Capri with Mona Bismarck, one of the wealthiest women in the world, when a friend telephoned to say that she had heard the news on the radio. Mona, who had then worn Balenciaga for 20 years (even her gardening shorts were designed by him), was distraught. “[She] didn’t come out of her room for three days,” Vreeland recalled. “She went into a complete… I mean, it was the end of a certain part of her life!”
It wasn’t just Balenciaga’s faithful clients who admired the couturier’s vision and supreme mastery of his craft. Despite—or perhaps because of—his famous reclusiveness, he had become a celebrity. Paparazzi stalked him: in 1962, France-Soir published a snatched picture of him wearing his white work smock, captioned: “This is Balenciaga, the mystery man.”
“When the events of 1968 closed Balenciaga, Mona Bismarck, who had worn the brand for 20 years (even her shorts) was distraught”
His rivals acknowledged his genius: a unique blend of technical skill, relentless perfectionism and bold originality. “Haute couture is like an orchestra, whose conductor is Balenciaga,” said Christian Dior. “We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.” Coco Chanel, once Balenciaga’s friend until they fell out over a spiteful interview in which she accused him of not understanding women’s bodies, admitted that he “alone is a couturier in the truest sense of the word. Only he is capable of cutting material, assembling a creation and sewing it by hand. The others are just designers.”
Retrospective celebrations of Balenciaga’s work began almost immediately after his death. Vreeland curated an exhibition at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1973. That show was followed by a multitude of others worldwide, and by the opening in 2011 of a museum at his birthplace, the Basque town of Getaria. In 1969, the photographer Cecil Beaton had suggested to the director of the V&A, John Pope-Hennessy, that haute couture should be regarded as a form of art, and in 1971 Beaton included 31 Balenciagas in his exhibition, Fashion: an Anthology. Balenciagas from the V&A’s collection appeared in the museum’s 2007 show, The Golden Age of Couture, but until now his legacy has remained unacknowledged by a major solo UK exhibition. All that will change with the V&A’s Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, which marks a century since he opened his design house, and 80 years since he presented his first haute couture collection in Paris.
Like Yves St Laurent and the current darling of French fashion, 27-year-old Simon Porte Jacquemus, Balenciaga was a child prodigy; and like Chanel and Alexander McQueen, he came from a modest background. He was born in 1895 in the fishing port of Getaria on the Basque coast, 30 kilometres from San Sebastián. His father was a fisherman who died when Balenciaga was 11, and his widowed mother, Martina, supported him and his elder sister and brother by working as a seamstress. Martina made clothes for a local aristocrat, the Marquesa de Casa Torres, and it was through the Marquesa’s patronage that 12-year-old Cristóbal was apprenticed to a tailor in San Sebastián. Half a century later he would design a regal wedding dress of pearly satin trimmed with white mink for the marriage of the Marquesa’s granddaughter, Fabiola, to the King of the Belgians.
Spain remained neutral during the First World War, and from 1917 Paris couturiers showed their collections in San Sebastián. Here Balenciaga met Madeleine Vionnet, the pioneer of bias-cutting—where garments are made from sections of fabric cut across the grain, enabling the clothing to cling to the body, to stretch and move. She became his lifelong friend and encouraged him to become a designer. He opened his first salon in San Sebastián; branches in Barcelona and Madrid followed, but in 1936 the Spanish Civil War prompted his move to Paris where, backed by a Basque couple, the Bizcarrondos, and his lover, the Franco-Russian interior decorator, Wladzio Jaworowski d’Attainville, he found premises at 10, avenue George V.
His first collection was respectfully reviewed by the fashion press and the order books began to fill with commissions from wealthy clients: the Duchess of Westminster, the Woolworth’s heiress Barbara Hutton, the Duchess of Windsor. After the war, as Dior banished memories of clothes rationing with his extravagant New Look, a provocatively feminine collection of nipped waists and billowing skirts, Balenciaga suffered a personal tragedy: Wladzio d’Attainville died suddenly, aged 49. Balenciaga’s grief was so extreme that he thought of closing his house and entering a monastery. His next collection was “all black, sad beyond belief,” his vendeuse Florette Chelot recalled. “We thought if that’s the way it’s going to be there’s no point in going on.” Instead, with a new companion, 23-year-old Ramón Esparza, he rallied to begin the remarkable decades of creativity and radical innovation covered by the V&A’s exhibition.
Cassie Davies-Strodder, the curator, explains that the show celebrates the evolution of Balenciaga’s aesthetic—the sculptural shapes, the ingenious cutting of sleeves and collars that turned the wrist and the nape of the neck into erogenous zones, the development of new textiles and the rigorous refinement of his line. (The
refinement proved too much for one client, who returned her “envelope” dress, complaining that it was impossible to go to the bathroom while wearing it.) But it also explores within and beyond Balenciaga’s creations, using X-ray technology to reveal the hidden details of his workmanship, evoking the ambience of salons and workrooms, and tracing his influence on designers up to the present day.
Fashion is often thought of as frivolous and ephemeral, but becoming a client of Balenciaga was neither—it was more like a spiritual ordeal. The exterior of his premises offered scarcely a hint of the business within. No merchandise was shown in the shop windows: the displays were sculptures by the artist Janine Janet. A tiny leather-lined lift rose to the third-floor salon. Balenciaga believed that a “disagreeable” manner was the mark of a truly distinguished woman, and his salon staff—the directrice, Mlle Renée, the vendeuses and above all the house models, known as “the monsters”—had mastered it to forbidding perfection. Colette, his first and favourite model, “walked in like a grenadier, as if she wanted to kill everyone.” Before the 1960s and the rise of cheap, stylish ready-to-wear, the profile of a dedicated follower of fashion was a wealthy, middle-aged woman with a less-than-girlish figure and a social life governed by rituals of exacting formality. “Give me an imperfect body and I will make it perfect,” Balenciaga used to say. As one of his vendeuses put it, “M Balenciaga likes a little tummy.”
“Balenziaga believed that a ‘disagreeable’ manner was the mark of a truly distinguished woman and his salon staff had mastered it to perfection”
While Dior wrote that “the prime need of fashion is to please and attract,” Balenciaga pursued a different vision. The theatre director, Peter Brook, and his wife Natasha Parry, met Balenciaga in the 1950s, and attended his collections as part of the vibrant Parisian arts scene. “I was very interested,” Brook recalled, “because there was this thing of the everyday and then there was style, something that was endlessly changing, and a sensitive person, the couturier, would have a sense of these invisible waves.” While other designers changed their shapes with every season, Balenciaga’s line developed organically, with a modernism as bold as anything imagined by Le Corbusier or Charles Eames.
Curator Davies-Strodder notes that men often hated Balenciaga’s dresses. The sculptural shapes of the barrel line, the tunic, the sack, the baby doll (all names bestowed by journalists—he identified his creations only by numbers) were beautiful and dramatic, but they were not overtly sexy. Their allure resided in the sense of self they bestowed on the women who wore them; the exquisite precision of their construction, arrived at only after hours of concentrated effort, which made models faint and reduced fitters to tears.
But if men detested the balloon jacket, the coal-scuttle headdress, the tufted cape of green wool like a grassy hillock, women loved them. “One never knew what one was going to see at a Balenciaga show,” wrote Vreeland. “One fainted. It was possible to blow up and die. I remember at one show in the early sixties… Audrey Hepburn turned to me and asked why I wasn’t frothing at the mouth at what I was seeing… Across the way Gloria Guinness was sliding out of her chair on to the floor. Everyone was going up in foam and thunder. We didn’t know what we were doing, it was so glorious.” With an impact like that, he inevitably made it into popular culture: in an episode of The Lucy Show, Lucille Ball was bamboozled by her husband into wearing a burlap sack—the last word, he assured her, in Paris style.
Then suddenly it was over. In 1966 Yves St Laurent, who found Balenciaga “insufficiently influenced by life,” opened his Rive Gauche ready-to-wear boutique. The future had arrived, and left haute couture behind. Chanel died in 1971. Balenciaga, who attended her funeral, died the following year. A New York Times report of the Met’s 1973 exhibition of his work bore the headline “The Era of Balenciaga: It Seems So Long Ago,” and Calvin Klein was quoted as saying, “Most of it looks out of date.”
As it turned out, he was mistaken. After lying dormant for over a decade, the Balenciaga name was revived and is now part of the Kering group, alongside brands such as Gucci, Yves St Laurent and Alexander McQueen. If much of design is a reworking of ideas from elsewhere, the brutal pace of modern fashion makes ever more pressing demands on the creativity of designers. But Balenciaga was never a brand in the sense that Chanel was, with her signature detailing—the linked Cs, the camellia, the fake pearls—that proclaim the label’s identity to this day. For Balenciaga, as Peter Brook and Cecil Beaton understood, making clothes was closer to art.
In his book, The Western Canon, Harold Bloom asked what makes a work of literature canonical. “The answer, more often than not,” he wrote, “has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Almost 50 years after Balenciaga ceased to practise, the strange originality of his vision survives—altered and reimagined, but undiminished.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is at the V&A from 27th May to 18th February 2018