Cristobal Balenciaga – the Spanish Couturier
Cristobal Balenciaga Biography Balenciaga was born on January 21st, 1895 in Getaria a small fishing village located in the Basque region of Spain. During his early years he spent most of his time being an apprentice of his own mother who was a seamstress. During his teens the noblest woman of the region, the Marquesa of Casa Torres became his patron and his first client. Balenciaga was send by the noble woman to Madrid to receive formal training in tailoring; she proudly wore and showed off the results.
This opportunity gave a young Balenciaga success in his native country and made him one of the few couturiers in History who was able to design, cut and sew his creations. As Balenciaga once noted “A couturier must be an architect for design, a sculptor for shape, a painter for colors, a musician for harmony and a philosopher for temperance. ” Balenciaga open branches of his boutique Eisa in Madrid, Barcelona and the fashionable seaside resort of San Sebastian. His designs were favored by the aristocracy of Spain including the Spanish royal family.
The eruption of the Spanish Civil War forced him to close down his boutiques and moved to Paris. Once in Paris he opened his couture house on 10 George Avenue V; where he immediately became an instant success among the elite and joined the ranks of Chanel and Schiaparelli. By 1939 Balenciaga was becoming a revolutionizing force in fashion with customers fighting to gain access to his collections, even during World War II his clientele risked travel to Europe to obtain his designs. His designs were very popular because the clothes he created were different than the popular, curvy hourglass shape that Dior was promoting.
Balenciaga liked working with fluid lines that allowed him to alter the way clothing related to a woman’s body. He became known for his exact standards and insistence on using absolute black for his designs; it wasn’t unusual for him to attend 100 fittings a day. Balenciaga did not use a framework of corsets, girdles and stays under his clothing; he relied on the structure of the dress only. Given to his perfectionism and standards his fashion house produce 350 designs a year, this was less than half than the 800 Dior was producing.
He was known in the trade for inspecting and re-setting sleeves even after the garment was shown in a collection or after the client have purchased the design. During his career he developed many designs that became the biggest trends of the time giving others the chance to copy his most acclaimed designs, something he didn’t enjoyed. Balenciaga’s lack of consideration for and connection to the appearance of the everyday woman was one major reason for his swift fall in popularity during the 1960’s.
As the fashions of France moved pushed forward and changed with the introduction of pret-a-porter, Balenciaga became disillusioned and closed his house in 1968. This marked the end of the career of a great artist whose influence is still being felt in the twenty-first century. He is remembered as a true fashion innovator that altered the silhouette of women in the mid twentieth century; as one of his long time clients noted: “Women did not have to be perfect or even beautiful to wear his clothes.
His clothes made them beautiful. ” He created garments that had fluidity and grace. His modern look was adapted by Andre Courreges and Emanuel Ungaro who both apprenticed at his atelier as well as Hubert de Givenchy. Balenciaga became respected in the fashion world for his knowledge of technique, construction and perfectionism. Balenciaga died on March 24, 1972 at home in his beloved Spain. Rise to Fame Balenciaga was known for using the female body as a living sculpture to build his famous and intricate designs.
People will refer to him as “a sculptor for shape,” His process of creating a dress was the one of an architect, he firmly believe that “if the framework is good, one can build what he wants. ” He used this philosophy to create innovative designs, a philosophy that still remains the basis for many leading designers’ collections today. For example, he was famous for his use of mathematics to make the perfect sleeve. He had a reputation for never allowing an imperfect sleeve to leave his shop and he was also known to improve the sleeves on the coats of visitors entering his salon.
During the war Balenciaga became known for his innovative square cut sleeves and for his lace designs. However it wasn’t until the war ended that his popularity among the aristocracy and celebrities of the time will rise even more. During this time the full scope of his talent became very clear. The shapes that he created post war were more sculptural than the hourglass shape of Dior’s New Look. Even Christian Dior his noted rival, stood on awe of his Spanish counterpart. Dior once said “Haute couture is like an orchestra, whose conductor is Balenciaga,” “We other couturiers are the musicians and we ollow the directions he gives. ” Balenciaga achieved what is considered to be his most important contribution to the fashion world; he created a new silhouette for women. He parted from the traditional to the experimental, especially the odd placement or the lack of waist line on his designs. This experimentation allowed Balenciaga to foresee the relationship between a woman’s body and her clothing. This concept of experimentation became the defining feature of Balenciaga’s collections throughout his career. The Clientele
Balenciaga’s loyal band of private clients belonged to the wealthiest titled and untitled families across the globe and embraced both professional women and socialites. His first customers included the Spanish Royal family along with the Spanish aristocracy, the most prominent his former patron Marquesa de Casa Torres and her grand-daughter, the future Queen Fabiola of Belgium. He designed the wedding dresses of Sonsoles Diaz de Rivera the daughter of his Spanish muse, the Marquesa de Llanzol and General Francisco Franco’s granddaughter.
In 1936 he opened his boutique on 10 Avenue George V (where the flagship store stands today). He became an instant success; customers came brawling at the doors of the boutique claiming for his bows and boleros. After the war when the world again became style-conscious. Queens, princesses, duchesses, movie stars, and the wives of millionaires often were photographed for the pages of newspaper society columns and fashion magazines wearing the latest Balenciaga creation. Hollywood starlets such as Carole Lombard, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers and others were frequent at his salon.
His funnel collared creations were worn by society’s elite including Pauline de Rothschild, Marella Agnelli and Gloria Guiness. It is rumored that fashion icon Jackie Kennedy upset her husband John F Kennedy for having an extensive Balenciaga collection because he feared the American public would think their lifestyle was too lavish. Balenciaga always insisted that only women of strong character would dare to wear his designs. When the designer retired in 1968, one of his most devoted clients the stylish Countess Mona Bismarck mourned the news by cloistering herself in her room for three days.
Unlike other designers who were bent on self-promotion and became stars in their own right, Balenciaga remained aloof from the public. He was not known to mingle with his clients, and he regularly observed the introduction of his latest collection hiding behind a white curtain. He allowed himself to be known only to a fortunate few, which added to his mystique. Use of Colors Balenciaga had an idea of simplicity that it clearly reflected on his choice of colors. Black was his favorite, he always had an insistence on the use of absolute black for his designs.
Black was the color of his childhood years, a time when the Basques were known for some of the extreme mourning dress in Europe. Balenciaga was eleven when his father died, the women of his family will have worn this traditional color during the time of bereavement. Black, in all its tones, remained a motif of Balenciaga’s work throughout his career. The press applauded the artfully creation of his little black dresses on his first Paris collection in 1937. Harper’s Bazar noted “ The black is so black it hits you like a blow…Thick Spanish black, almost velvety, a night without stars, which the ordinary black seem almost gray. His choice of colors were followed by the use of brown, black and brown combination, pink, black lace over pink, whites, blues and greens. Major Trends Balenciaga believed than the clothing and body should coexist in harmony. His daytime clothing was straightforward and stylish; a simple black wool dress, a beige sleeveless blouse and a charcoal gray two-piece suit with a leather belt. His evening wear was more extravagant and playful; he used abundantly decorated fabrics, heavy beading, protruding shoulders, and broad full skirts.
A characteristic of Balenciaga’s evening dresses is that they were floor-length and strapless, trimmed in white floral lace on a black net base. It was worn over a gray silk taffeta petticoat, and came with a pink silk taffeta cummerbund, or waistband. He loved the fluid lines created by jerseys draped over the body, he enjoy experimenting with waistlines in order to create special effects. He was an architect of fashion that favored structured geometric shapes. The most celebrated and coveted item of his geometric designs was the square coat, which the sleeve was cut in one piece with the yoke.
In 1953, he introduced the balloon jacket with a funnel collar, the jacket looked like an elegant sphere that encased the upper body and provide a pedestal for the wearer’s head. In 1955 he created the Tunic dress which later on inspired the high-waisted baby doll dress. In 1957, he created the high-waisted baby doll dress which became a symbol of the era as it encapsulated the youth of the baby boom. Also during this time he created the gracefully draped cocoon coat, and the balloon skirt which became symbols of the spirit of the atelier.
The balloon skirt was shown as a single spherical parcel of fabric or as two one-atop the other. The sack dress created in 1957 and the chemise created in 1958 didn’t have a discernible waist; however they were considered universally flattering as wells as feminine. Balenciaga’s styles were copied by a large number of ready to wear manufacturers at every price range. To ward off from copyists, Balenciaga began presenting his collections to private clients and buyers a month before showing them to the press.
Givenchy was the only designer to support his decision; as a result they both suffered an impact in their press coverage. Balenciaga interpreted numerous historical styles throughout his career, the wide-skirted “Infanta” dresses inspired by the portraits of Diego Velazquez was one of them. Also the heavily embroidered toreador jackets known as “jacket of light” which inspired most of his evening wear, and hot-pink flamenco ruffles would all exemplify Balenciaga’s combination of the “refinement of France and the strength of Spain. (Cecil Beaton) Balenciaga’s list of innovations is nearly unparalleled, from tunics to baby dolls, knee-high boots to pillbox hats. His beetle-like “barrel” line, poufy “balloon” dresses, and semi fitted suits that were tailored in the front and loose in the back. His designs were on the front lines of a revolution that de-crowned Dior’s New Look waist and created entirely fresh, fluid lines. Balenciaga always completed an outfit will a hat and sparkling costume jewelry. In 1959 his decade of examination and experimentation with the waist culminated with the empire line dresses and kimono like coats.
His suits had higher waistlines and were coupled with shorter jackets. Towards the end of his career his elegant evening dresses took a backseat. The final designed Balenciaga collection featured the youthful styles of Carnaby Street with miniskirts and trompe l’oeil tunics, which is a style of painting in which objects are depicted with photographically realistic detail. This last collection was the end of his silhouette experimentation and his designs came to define the swinging sixties style. Use of Fabrics Balenciaga was a pioneer on innovation.
He made use of innovative synthetic fabrics, like the first water-resistant fabric created in 1949. It was a shiny, lacquered fabric called “Cracknyl” for use in skiwear and raincoat. He also often combined familiar natural fabrics with these new man-made materials, in order to create a look that surprised through contrast. He was well known for layering fabrics to create a unique look. Even though he used new fabrics, he always returned to his favorites: silk, stiff satin, and lace. The layering of his fabrics however could add up bulk and weight to the consumer.
Balenciaga always enjoyed the innovative use of fabric; he liked to use bold materials, heavy cloths and ornate embroideries. This led him to work with the Swiss fabric house of Abraham, they both develop silk gazar (also known as four-ply silk organza) which was a new, stiff fabric with marvelous sculptural qualities, he created breath taking evening gowns and theatrical pieces, like his fall 1967 “chou” silk gazar wrap. During the 1960’s Balenciaga became a pioneer in the use of fabrics, he mixed weighty materials, complex embroidery and stiff sculptural materials.
As Balenciaga once noted “Great fabrics are the prerequisite of great couture. ” His most notable trademarks were the collars that stood away from the collarbone to give a swanlike appearance as well as the shortened 7/8 length bracelet sleeves which allowed the wearer to better show off her jewelry. Inspiration Throughout his career Balenciaga was heavily influenced by his Spanish heritage, especially with the culture, history and art of Spain. These influences always had a huge impact on his spiritual life and aesthetics. Balenciaga was a devoted Catholic; some of his designs conveyed a sculptural purity.
The clothes he designed were ecclesiastical and clerical based on simple shapes and serious styles that portrayed a modernist interpretation. But for the designer himself, religious belief and inspiration were powerfully internalized. He once thought he would become a priest, he attended Mass faithfully and he displayed crucifixes and religious statuary at home. It is said the pillbox hats were inspired by the biretta, or traditional cleric’s cap. Bullfights, flamenco dancers, regional costumes, liturgical vestments and shawls all served as inspirations for his reinterpretations of native traditions.
He loved the emotion and color of flamenco and the “jacket of life” worn by bullfighting matadors. His 1946 collection starred these “matador boleros” as evening wear. He enjoy mixing historical, courtly fabrics with revolutionary ultra-modern textures, one of his trademark was pairing a bold block of color with a stripe, polka-dot or floral. His famous “Infanta” gown was inspired by the costumes of Spanish princesses. The gown was made from delicate pink silk satin with black velvet and detailing around the hips and decolletage; the gown echoed the formality and luxury of the 17th century.
Haute Couture, Diffusion Lines Balenciaga designed high fashion also known as haute couture, a phrase that pertains to ground-breaking clothing styles originated by designers and meant to be worn by the famous and wealthy. His creations were very expensive that people look for cheaper ways to get a hand of his creations. A cheaper way of buying made-to-measure Balenciaga fashions was open to those who knew his Spanish operations, where labor costs were lower and local fabrics sometimes were substituted for those used in Paris.
His designs were also heavily copied by ready to wear manufactures and offered at all price points. There are no financial records of the business during Balenciaga administration. The Parisian Haute Couture houses were very secretive about their business; it is very common that the design records rather than the accounts records survive. However, it is known that the house was worth 2 million francs in 1946 and 30 million francs in 1960. The use of gimmicks to attract customers was avoided at all costs.
Balenciaga opposed heavily to this, even in the postwar period of consumerism, when many of Balenciaga’s competitors engaged freely in a variety of new sales tactics, including the development of ranges of ready-to-wear clothing, and the use of advertising. Some of his diffusion lines included the launch of his first Balenciaga fragrance “Le Dix” in 1946, which was named after the address of the first atelier in Paris. The fragrance received great media attention and the house became an instant rival to Coco Chanel in fragrance sa On 1963, Balenciaga launched a series of shoes that were produced by Rene Mancini, the famous cordwainer.
After the house closed and Balenciaga died, his nephews took control of the lucrative fragrance line only. The famous house remain dormant until 1978, Hoechst became responsible for it. Later on in 1986 it was acquired by Groupe Jacques Bogart. On 1987 a ready to wear collection was shown, it was designed by Michael Goma and received mixed reviews. Goma was replaced by Dutch Josephus Thimister, he began the restoration of the atelier to its former glory and to high fashion status. In 1997 the unknown Nicolas Ghesquiere became creative director of the ready to wear lines and accessories.
Ghesquiere designs have been heavily inspired by Balenciaga’s early collections, he has continued with the legacy of the designer by using templates of Balenciaga’s archives and artfully re-creating the atelier most famous designs. Conclusion To my opinion Balenciaga’s inspiration and creativity are heavily conducted by the love the atelier had for his country as well as his love for perfection. I believe he wanted to show the world the passion he had for his heritage, which was clearly portrayed through his designs. I think Balenciaga never forgot his roots, he never forgot where he came from.
Even though his designs were purchased by the elite, Balenciaga was more interested and preoccupied on creating perfection that mingling with the aristocracy. The more interesting aspects of Balenciaga are his innovation on the use of fabrics and the construction of his designs. He was pioneer on the development of new trends that has served as inspiration for designers around the globe. His mysterious personality and mystique marked another exuberant aspect of the atelier. He didn’t enjoy self-promotion or gimmicking to build a name for himself, instead he used the art of fashion to fascinate and conquer the masses.