The High Priest of 20th-century haute couture entered this world on January 21 1895. Cristóbal Balenciaga, who started sewing professionally at 12, was later described by Christian Dior as ‘the master of us all’.
Cristóbal Balenciaga’s fisherman father died when he was still young. His seamstress mother taught him to sew and at 12, he began an apprenticeship with a tailor.
In 1919, Balenciaga opened his first Spanish salon and quickly became the favoured designer of Spanish royalty. However, the Spanish Civil War put paid to that and in 1937, he opened a couture house in Paris. His wealthy lover, hatmaker Vladzio d’Attainville helped finance the move.
The pair worked together with d’Attainville designing hats to complement Balenciaga’s gowns. However, during the war, d’Attainville made hats so large, the authorities penalised him for his excessive use of fabric. They forbid him from making any hats at all for Balenciaga’s next collection. So, he made crowns of braided hair instead.
In 1948, Vladzio d’Attainville died suddenly of a stomach ulcer. His lover’s death devastated Cristóbal Balenciaga. Numerous newspaper articles referenced his inherent sadness in the years afterwards. He remained living in the small flat they bought in 1937 for the rest of his life in Paris. However, the 17th-century chateau they bought and renovated reminded him too much of Vladzio and he seldom returned there.
Little is known of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s life outside of his work following d’Attainville’s death. He became reclusive, often referred to as a monk. Balenciaga gave one press interview in his entire career. He refused dinner invitations, even from the Duchess of Windsor. Nor did he advertise, regarding the publicity gimmickry of fellow Parisien designers as vulgar.
In the early 1950s, Balenciaga’s designs revolutionised fashion. He transformed the traditional fashion silhouette, broadening shoulders, highlighting necks, first erasing the waist and later, moving it up under the bust.
The Kansas City Star attempted to describe his aesthetic in 1960.
“These garments burst on an astonished world as weird/bizarre, emphasizing defects in women rich enough to buy them. A dress by some other dressmaker may flatter the wearer. The same women in Balenciaga dresses as often as not resemble bats or sandhill cranes with long necks protruding from loosely fitting folds of cloth. But the woman who can wear a Balenciaga creation achieves a triumph in her circle.”
Other designers agreed, even the usually snarky Coco Chanel, who called him the only true couturier.
“He alone is a couturier. Only he is capable of cutting, draping and sewing by hand. The others are merely designers.”
Balenciaga retired in 1968, disheartened, some said, by women’s embrace of the mini-skirt he personally abhorred. He died a few years later but his beautiful designs live on.
Read more: January 20 <— On this day —> January 22
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