21st January marks the birth of not just one fashion legend but two, Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga. Fashion contemporaries, they led the charge in re-establishing the dominance of Parisian haute couture post Second World War. However, whilst Dior grabbed the headlines, Balenciaga was the quiet createur, leaving only a silent archive to stand testament to his legend. What better day to create some noise and celebrate a master.
THE PRODIGAL SON
His fashion genius developed early. With his mother a seamstress in their hometown of Guetaria, Spain, he was exposed to the principles of fashion construction from a young age. Nevertheless, aged just eleven years old, Balenciaga made a perfect copy of a suit he’d seen being worn by the Marquesa de Casa Tores as she holidayed in the town. So impressed was she with his creation that she became his benefactor, enabling him to take on a tailor’s apprenticeship to develop his skills.
Though his progression was gradual, as was typical of his style of working, he climbed his way up the career ladder, honing his craft every step of the way. He opened his first couture salon in San Sebastian and then another in Madrid but the Spanish Civil War soon robbed him of his aristocratic client base and after a brief stint in London, in 1937 he opened the doors to his Parisian house.
THE LEARNED CRAFTSMAN
Balenciaga was a master craftsman. Studying the techniques of the couturiers, in the interwar years he’d travelled to Paris, buying up modeles which he would then deconstruct and analyse. He was constantly researching; always prepared to challenge himself, he was open and looking for new techniques and new solutions so he might edge a little closer to perfection with every creation.
And a perfectionist he was. Where as Dior was a designer, preferring to sketch his ideas, Balenciaga played an active role in developing his garments through every stage - he would often see a hundred fittings a day! Sleeves were his particular obsession, and he was infamous for setting and re-setting them until he achieved his desired effect.
But so powerful were his creations, they were worthy of every extra hour, every extra stitch, every extra moment of contemplation that was spent on them. He was an architect of fashion. He was inspired by geometric shapes especially the sphere and, like sculptures, his designs seemed to work separately to the body, enveloping it, using it for support yet ultimately, standing away from it; his creations were 3D entities on their own.
“Where as Dior’s dresses are most ingeniously and beautifully evolved from sketches, Balenciaga uses fabrics like a sculptor working in marble.” - CECIL BEATON
He also liked to surprise. One of his signature marks was to highlight the backs of his clothes with detached panelling, added volume or trains for example.
Whilst Dior’s New Look created headlines, it was a look that was very much of its era. Balenciaga’s creations however, so free and unstructured in comparison, were the truly revolutionary of the two. His silhouettes would go on to influence the shape of fashion into the 1960s and ultimately, to shape fashion as we know it.
Following his retirement in 1968, the house of Balenciaga was left to languish. Nicolas Ghesquiere had a new vision for the future of the label when he took the helm in 1997 but it was not until the Gucci Group bought the brand in 2001 that he had the backing to build on his ideas. After fifteen successful years with the label and having returned the name of Balenciaga to the forefront of fashion, Ghesquiere announced his departure in November 2012.
His successor, New York-based designer Alexander Wang, promises something different for the future of the label. Winning accolades and fans alike, his own label showcases his urban, sportswear approach to design. This marked difference in styles could make for an interesting evolution of the Balenciaga look and whilst Wang’s first two collections have been a safe homage to the brand’s heritage, Paris Fashion Week in March will be a good indicator of just how he plans to take the label forward.
Cristobal Balenciaga: 21 January 1895 - 24 March 1972