Cristóbal Balenciaga started sewing as a child. His mother was a seamstress in the Basque province of Spain, where he was born in 1895, and it is said that it was here that he fell in love with clothing. At 12, he started working as an apprentice with a local tailor. When he finally opened his couture house in Paris, in August 1937, Balenciaga had an experience of 30 years.
Christian Dior called him “the master of us all”, while famous American fashion columnist and editor Diana Vreeland described him as the “the greatest dressmaker who ever lived”. From the opening of his first boutique in San Sebastian in 1917, to his retirement in 1968, the couturier’s designs were more sought after than any other. Case in point: American socialite Mona von Bismarck once bought a record 88 outfits from him, even getting him to design gardening clothes for her.
If there is one thing that is known for certain about the dressmaker, it is that he despised the press, often excluding them from his runway shows and refusing to comment on his inspirations. Even then, there were no shortcomings in his clientele. Queen Fabiola of Belgium wore a wedding dress designed by him, socialite Barbara Hutton ordered 19 dresses from a single collection, and people travelled to Europe, even during the Second World War to see his shows. Though he had shifted base to Paris at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he continued to draw inspiration from his homeland. The first runway show that he staged in 1937 was inspired by the Spanish Renaissance. Paris was home to many renowned designers at the time – Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Pierre Balmain and many others worked in the fashion capital, but it was Balenciaga who is said to have been the most expensive of them all. Despite the high prices and the fact that window shopping not being entertained by the Couture House, there was always a flurry of clients for Balenciaga’s creations.
An introvert with a closed group of friends, Balenciaga spent days perfecting his silhouettes. Perhaps that is why his ‘balloon skirts’ and jackets, ‘sack dress’ and the ‘baby doll dress’ continue to be the subject of much appreciation, even years after their inception. Just as rare as his designs were his practices; every collection that came from the couture house had one garment designed entirely by him. The genius of his works can be seen in an exhibit in the Victoria and Albert museum in London, curated by Cassie Davies-Strodder, to mark the 100th anniversary of his design house.
How would the greatest couturier of the 20th century fare in today’s fashion world? Would he be appalled by the fleeting fast fashion cycles? Definitely. Would his silhouettes still be consumed with the same intensity? Perhaps. But one thing that Balenciaga would never part with, were he alive today, would be perfection, even if it meant foregoing social media and business models we have termed as important. After all, as Coco Chanel said, “He alone is a couturier in the truest sense of the word.”