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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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 (

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

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