Say his name aloud.
A name poem, an octosyllable perfectly arranged in harmonious beauty. Like Cristóbal Balenciaga scissoring fabric into timeless elegance.
When I discovered that a museum honouring his work had opened in the Basque seaside village of Getaria where he grew up, and that it was on our way to Bilboa from San Sebastián, Magellan and I decided to pay homage to one of my design heroes.
The Basques are unique and fiercely proud of it. No one knows where they came from. Their blood type is different from that of other Europeans. Euskera, their language, bears no relationship to any other. Perhaps that’s why the feeling of ‘elsewhere’ prevails in the humble village of Getaria on the Basque coast, once a wealthy whaling port.
Magellan and I didn’t have an easy time finding Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, probably because we didn’t know to look for a nineteenth-century villa (the former summer home of Marquis and Marquesa of Casa Torres for whom Balenciaga’s mother sewed) attached to a modern building with a sleek façade.
When Balenciaga was 11 years old, his father, a modest but respected fisherman, died at sea. Balenciaga was the youngest of three children left to be supported by their mother’s sewing. He learned the craft from her, even accompanying her to fittings in the town’s villas where Spanish aristocrats summered. At the age of 18 he apprenticed with a tailor in San Sebastián, the city where he opened his own studio five years later. As family meant everything to Balenciaga, his sister and brother became his business associates.
Expert cutting (some said he was ambidextrous), minimal seams, flattering proportion and ease of wear were his trademarks. He believed in “the elegance of black and white, the colours of Spain’s earth and rocks and olives and the effective accents of turquoise and yellow.” Always a serious perfectionist, Balenciaga worked long hours and avoided high society.
By the age of 21 he was dressing the Queen of Spain. But it’s said his best client was “a raw-voiced fishwife with her skirts tucked up as she skidded around the slippery wet floors.” In her excellent biography of Balenciaga, Mary Blume writes that it was said “the women he really likes to dress, French or not, were oddly enough small, plump, and middle-aged like the wife of Kandinsky.” Mary also talks about a model becoming dizzy during a fitting (because she was dieting) and Balenciaga saying, “Danielle, it’s not your job to slim, it’s my job to dress you so it can’t be seen.” (No wonder I love his work!) Years later an article in American Vogue, “The Balenciaga Mystique,” describes how he saw women.
“He really respected and loved them—I see that in the clothes, the way he approached the body. He liked to fit on models who were not perfect…He liked to work with reality, and flatter it.”
He was also dressing the wife of Franco. In 1936 when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Balenciaga fled to Paris, leaving his Spanish design houses in San Sebastián, Madrid and Barcelona under the management of his nieces and nephews.
Not only was he cutting a future in couture and semi-ready-to-wear, Balenciaga also had a sharp facility for finance and didn’t arrive penniless in Paris. Apparently, he “never ordered a centimeter too much of fabric.” By 1959, he had the highest net profit in haute couture.
His Paris showroom was unique. No clothing was displayed in the windows, only sculptures. Even then, designer fashion shows were social spectacles. Not Balenciaga’s. His were serious and hushed. In 1956 he barred the press from his collections until his clients and commercial buyers had seen the clothes, because he believed they came first and the press promoted ruthless copying.
Harper’s Bazaar was the first magazine to applaud Balenciaga’s talent. The elegantly revealed neck. The shortened sleeves. The unexaggerated bosoms. The unemphatic waistline. Effortless freedom of the body. Mary Blume describes Balenciaga’s inimitable work as “voluptuous austerity,” “heartbreakingly simple,” “irrevocably complex” and filled with poise, “a savant equilibrium that was quiet at its most extravagant,” the “monk of couture” influenced by Japanese woodcuts.
The love of his life, Wladzio Jaworowski d’Attainville, worked in the company making witty hats and witticisms that provided a counterpoint to Balenciaga’s seriousness. When Wladzio died in 1948 after they’d been together for 20 years, the heartbroken Balenciaga entered a monastery. You know where? Sully-sur-Loire! Magellan’s paternal ancestors came from this area, which he and his parents and I visited in the 90s.
Balenciaga did take up his scissors again—to great acclaim. As time went on, he kept perfecting his line rather than changing it. We women can thank him for the sheath dress and the first patterned tights.
Then came Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité! The May 1968 student protests in Paris, the strikes, street fighting and burning cars reminded him of the civil war in Spain. Balenciaga unceremoniously closed the doors to his Paris showroom and died four years later.
Vogue editor Bettina Ballard said “…the only clothes that stand up as timeless in their elegance are Balenciaga’s and Chanel’s.”
Coco Chanel said, “Only he is capable of cutting material, assembling a creation and sewing it by hand.”
Christian Dior said that other designers were members of the orchestra led by Balenciaga the conductor, “the master of us all.”
Master embroiderer Francois Lesage said Balenciaga “put a touch of eternity into his work.”
I’m giving biographer Mary Blume the last word on Balenciaga.
“His clothes do not evoke nostalgia because nostalgia is a lightweight emotion, but they do inspire respect, a nearly unknown word in the throwaway world of fashion.”
UPDATE; March 30, 2023. Collins, Lauren. “Pins and Needles.” The New Yorker. How Demna engineered the rise–and near-fall–of the house of Balenciaga.
The Balenciaga label has carried on, now under the designer Demna Gvasalia, and in 2017 is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Bettina Ballard, Bettina. In My Fashion. New York: David McKay Company Inc., 1960.
Blume, Mary. The Master of Us All Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013.
Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, which opened in 2011, draws from its permanent collections of Balenciaga’s designs and holds temporary exhibitions focusing on his influence on other designers.
Getaria is a lovely town to visit. We’d recommend you spend a day here. Magellan and I had a great lunch after our visit to Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa and a hike that granted grand views over the Spanish town that once rivaled France’s Biarritz. But that’s another post…