He bestowed an exquisite sense of self on the women who wore his designsby Jane Shilling / 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!”