Balenciaga: the designer’s designer
His clothes made Audrey Hepburn froth at the mouth, and Dior called him ‘master’. On the eve of a V&A retrospective of the couturier, Lisa Armstrong salutes Cristóbal
As a stunning exhibition about the master couturier opens at the V&A, Lisa Armstrong takes a look at his life and work
In 1919, 10 years after a pushy erstwhile cabaret artiste called Coco Chanel had launched a small milliner y shop in Paris, Cristóbal Balenciaga, a taciturn Basque, opened his first boutique, in San Sebastián, northern Spain. Ostensibly so different, yet united in their push to liberate women from what they both saw as the undignified pomp and vulgarity of the over wrought Edwardian era, between them they would exert the most potent and enduring influence over fashion, style and taste of the 20th century and beyond.
It was Chanel, however, who became the personality. Quick-witted, seemingly able to deliveraphori sms to or der, u naba she d ab out her unconventional love life, she was t he mirror image of the more tortured Balenciaga – but no less admiring of him for that. In fact, she was uncharacteristically reverential, declaring him ‘the only couturier in the truest sense of the word. The others are simply fashion designers’.
If she meant that he created from the first stitch up, she was right. Like Chanel, who was also born in the dying days of the 19th century (she earlier than he, although she liked to pretend otherwise), Balenciaga strove constantly to make clot hes t hat worked on a 20t h-centur y woman’s body. Experimenting with construction (one dress in the exhibition has just a single seam), he st ripped away fripperies, until by the mid-1950s, many of his designs could be slipped on and off over the head. Costanza Pascolato, the impeccably chic 77-year-old Italian-born Brazilian Instagram star, who wore a Balenciaga wedding dress in the 1960s, recalls, ‘It was so simple it felt almost sporty.’ The apparent effortlessness was, of course, supremely labor ious. The V& A’s for t hcoming ex hibit ion (Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion) worked with artist Nick Veasey to convert an ar ticulated lorr y into an X-ray studio to photog raph some of its outf its. The results provide a forensic insight into hidden details, such as the weights sewn into the shoulder panel of a 1960s silver-beaded sa r i-st yle evening gown (one was bought by Elizabet h Taylor) to ensure it draped just as t he master envisaged. ‘Thanks to the number of designers who come to study the Balenciagas in the V& A archives, I always knew he was a virtuoso tailor with an unparalleled understanding of how fabric works,’ says Cassie Davies-strodder, curator of 20th- and 21st-century fashion at the V&A. ‘But seeing the way he cut patterns has been a revelation. He was fascinated by the space between the body and a garment – what
Coco Chanel called him ‘the only couturier’
the Japanese, with whom he was obsessed, call ma. He perfected a way to create loose, sometimes voluminous pieces that somehow fitted perfectly to the body. There’s often an oddness to his work that makes it unforgettable.’
This talent for combining majestic drama with minimalism, long before minimalism became commonplace in fashion, was at the heart of his genius, rooted in both his nationality( flamenco ruffles, matador jackets, lace and crimson became leitmotifs throughout his career) and his up bringing. By the 1950 sand’ 60s, i tall came together creatively for Balenciaga. He popularised bracelet-length sleeves( the better for showing off dainty wrist sand jewellery ), invented a stand-up collar that elongated necks (Carmel Snow, editor of American Harper’s Bazaar, claimed he created it specially for her), and, looking to Japanese kimonos, pioneered a dipped collar that highlighted the back of the neck – a curiously erotic zone, as any geisha knows – and made women look like swans. The effect was a forerunner of the ‘shrobing’ beloved of today’s street-style brigade( copied from cutting techniques by Demna Gvasalia, current creative director at Balenciaga, and by extension, from Cristóbal himself ).
‘At first women appeared as if they had escaped from a cataclysm wearing someone else’s clothes,’ wrote the everastute Cecil Beaton of Balenciaga’s deconstructions. ‘But the provocatively covered forms and loose-fitting sacks, in fact the silhouette of today, were all inventions of this lone mastermind.’
‘When you think that he was born into an era of heavy, oppressive, late- victorian clothes, it’s astonishing how modern Balenciaga became ,’ observes Davies-strodder. ‘Unlike Dior, who was unashamedly nostalgic, at his peak, Balenciaga relentlessly looked forward.’
He wasn’t interested in making women look sexy, however. His house models were notoriously plain, and Balenciaga’s instruction that they look haughty didn’t help. Magazine editors were dismayed at his insistence that they photograph his clothes on his‘ monsters ’, as they were known, and retaliated by showing them headless.
Balenciaga’s career seems almost pre destined. His mother was a seamstress, and he began work as an apprentice tailor when he was 12. A couple of years later, the Marchioness de Casa Torres swooped down, began to commission him and not long after, dispatched him to Madrid to learn tailoring from Spain’s greatest.
Chanel’s analysis of Balenciaga was by no means a rogue view. Christian Dior referred to him as ‘the master of us all’. Hubert de Givenchy, whom Balenciaga helped financially to set up a maison opposite his own on the avenue Georges V
‘If he retires, then an era will be ended,’ wrote Beaton
in the late 1950s, worshipped him .‘ Not even the Bible ,’ Givenchy declared, taught him as much as Balenciaga, whom he frequently consulted about his work. André Courrèges, Emanuel Ungaro, Paco Rabanne and Oscar de la Renta, who at the start of his career worked for Balenciaga as an illustrator, Nicolas Ghe squière, who revived Balenciaga in the early 2000s, have all acknowledged him as an inspiration. Then there are what Davies-strodder calls the outer ripples – Phoebe Philo at Céline, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Erdem – in whose work confluences can be seen. Outfits by 30 of these designers can also be seen in the exhibition.
B alenciaga’s talent never seems to have been questioned, and success was relatively swift. In 1917–a full century ago–he launched a line called Eisa and, following the popularity of the San Sebastián store, opened branches in Barcelona and Madrid. Aristocratic clients followed, as did the Spanish royal family. International fame, however, was somewhat slower. This was a question partly of geography but also of temperament. While Dior was busy signing licensing deals all over the world and Chanel was fulfilling what she later complained was her Faustian pact with the business-minded Wertheimer family (it made her very rich), Balenciaga refused to have any truck with commercialism. There is no lasting Balenciaga scent; no single era-defining outfit à la Dior’s 1947 New Look or Chanel’s sporty-chic tweed suit.
Even when he moved his couture house to Paris, in 1937, placing himself on a much grander world stage, Balenciaga was extremely picky about whom he dressed. He refused to appear at the unveiling of his new collections. For a decade he banned the press (shades of Azzedine Alaïa, yet another maverick who cites Balenciaga as one of his few influences). These strictures were not the actions of a man in thrall to the publicity machine but, Davies-str odder thinks, the defence of a supremely confident designer determined to keep the copyists at bay. Over the years there was consistent speculation that he didn’t exist at all (shades of Martin Margiela, the Belgian designer who, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, refused to take a bow at the end of his shows).
Eventually, Balenci ag adeignedt ogive the one full press interview of his life–to the
Sunday Times associate editor Ernestine Carter, in 1972, four years after his retirement .‘ The reticence just added to the mystique ,’ observe sDaviesStr odder .‘ It’ s quite difficult unpicking the truth from the myths.’ What we do know is that he was a devout Catholic and that when his lover Wladzio d’attainville, a FrancoPolish milliner, died, in 1948, Balenciaga was so devastated that he wanted to close his house. One begins to sense the conflict and torture.
Not even acolytes saw him. One observer who did, Cecil Beaton, portrays a ‘shy and dignified [figure who] peers at you through his blue glasses( he is anxious about his
eyesight), your heart goes out to him. Here is a man of such deep intensity of feeling that suffering is something he cannotes cape, and you surmise that somewhere life went wrong for him.’
His coterie of clients regarded him as a cross between an artistic deity and an autocrat. Introduced to the master during lunch at Le Grand Véfour, by Snow, the film star Paulette Goddard and the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos, both performed profound, heart-felt curtsies.
There was a distinctive genus of Balenciaga woman. Supremely elegant, glacial even, with an ability to pull off Balenciaga’s inimical g rand simplicity. Gloria Guinness, a former nightclub hostess( so it was rumoured) turned socialite who intuited the art of up staging a roomful of primped women by turning up in sublimely judged understatement long before that became a fashionable ruse, was one – and some of the best pieces in the exhibition come from her. Mon avon Bismarck, the inaugural recipient of the Best Dressed Woman in the World award, wore Balenciaga at every possible turn (the Balenciaga shoes she wore for gardening are in the exhibition). Claudia Heard de Osborne, who stored her couture in a suite at the Paris Ritz, insisted on being buried in Balenciaga.
There was also a clutch of Holly wood clients: Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn (who was so transported by one show that she asked Diana Vreeland, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, why she wasn’t frothing at the mouth) and Ava Gardner, who often saved money by ordering from Eisa, Balenciaga’s less pricey label in Spain, which he never abandoned, even while his Paris house flourished. Gardner, who in later life lived around the corner from the V& A and donated her Balenciagas to the museum after her death, had a habit, according to Davies-strodder, of ‘improving’ them with additional feathers.
Pauline de Rothschild, another loyalist, explained how his dresses ‘were like sails. Legs moved easily, the front of the long skirts running a little faster ahead than one’s walk.’ The writer Mary Blume described ‘how easy and right’ a Balenciaga felt, ‘as nothing has since. His silhouettes may have been faultless, but they were made for a living, moving, avid body.’ Yet, she noted, they were also curiously demanding. ‘They required a bearing… in return, they conferred assurance.’
‘Let us hope he does not contemplate retirement,’ wrote Beaton, ‘for if he does, then an era will be ended.’
He did and it was. When Balenciaga closed his house in 1968, it was, he said, ‘because there was no one left to dress’. That’s partially true. Fashion had entered t he era of Shrimpton, Birkin and Twiggy. The barricades were coming down. A 31-year-old Saint Laurent had pronounced haute couture dead in 1967 when he launched YSL Rive Gauche, his ready-to-wear – a comparatively mass-produced exercise in which Balenciaga had no interest. But, says Davies-strodder, ‘he was in his 70s and had been designing for 50 years. Although he was still pioneering, there was a perception that he was old guard and the way he worked archaic.’
No wonder the women he had dressed felt part of a sect. One can imagine that when the extensively connected Cecil Beaton, whom the V&A shrewdly invited to curate a fashion anthology in the 1970s, unfurled his little black book of addresses, those invited to donate their Balenciagas felt honoured to oblige.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is at the V& A from 27 May to 18 February (vam.ac.uk)
He closed his house ‘because there was no one left to dress’
balenciaga at work, photographed by henri cartier-bresson, Paris, 1968
a balenciaga coat, 1954. in the background, buyers inspect a dinner outfit
silk zibeline evening dress, 1967, photographed by cecil beaton in 1971