The history of Balenciaga began when haute couture designer, Cristobal Balenciaga set up the house in 1917. But the foundation was set during the time the namesake founder worked with his mother. His mother singlehandedly raised him after his father died when he was 10.
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From then on, he seriously started studying dressmaking under his mother’s guidance. His mother was a seamstress, and he trained under her. By the age of 12, he had developed a sense of fashion design. Having to make ends meet, a career in the fashion industry never seemed possible.
That was until the Marquesa de Casa Torres, a Spanish aristocrat, called upon Cristobal’s mother to be her personal seamstress. That’s where the story begins for this designer.
Beginnings of a Haute Couture Designer: 1907–1937
His fascination for high fashion began when the Spanish aristocrat asked him to design a dress for her. The story goes that she stopped by to get some work done, and young Cristobal complimented the Parisian tailoring (Drecoll tailleur) of her outfit.
Moved by his compliment and impressed by his attention to detail, she offered him an apprenticeship. Young Cristobal, knowing that it was a chance of a lifetime, leapt at it. Around this time, the esteemed lady sent the budding designer to Madrid to seek formal training.
There the tailor gained early success in his native country. He opened a branch of his boutique at the seaside resort of San Sebastian in 1918–19. Since the Marquesa often socialized with Spanish nobility. These esteemed members of society became a loyal customer base for Cristobal.
As the upper class would wear custom-made items as a style statement, Cristobal became a tour de force in the country’s fashion industry. His garments featured a fusion of Japanese and European haute couture, making them novel pieces.
This was the start of Balenciaga. But this success would be short-lived as the Spanish nobility began to fall apart. In 1931, the monarchy was abolished, forcing a complete redesign of Spain’s class structure. But during the four years that followed, the talented designer expanded his brand. He opened two new branches in Madrid and Barcelona. He named them Eisa, after his mother.
With the Spanish Civil Wars breaking out in 1936, he had to close his boutiques. While he adored Spain, he realized that the political instability would affect his progress.
Life in France & the Post-War Years (1937–1959)
In 1937, he fled to Paris and joined the ranks of notable designers like Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Mainbocher. But this time, he decided to do things differently. He dropped his first name and stuck with the name “Balenciaga.”
In August 1937, he staged his first runway show at his 10 Avenue George V atelier in Paris. But his major breakthrough would come two years later. In 1939, the master showcased his collection which was influenced by the Spanish Renaissance. One of the pieces was the Infanta dress which was inspired by the costumes in Diego Velazquez’s paintings.
The ongoing civil war in Spain also offered a certain cultural relevance to his pieces. Vogue magazine would go on to depict this dress in the following cartoon by Carl Erickson.
By 1939, Balenciaga had become the top haute couture ideator in France. The press would praise the fashion designer for his ability to create lasting trends. But it was only a month after the presentation of the collection that World War II had started.
Usually, high fashion is the last thing on people’s minds during a time of crisis.
Yet, due to the popularity of his pieces — such as the square coat — clients would risk travelling to France to purchase them. His unique color combinations would also attract these customers. He often featured black and brown or black lace over bright pink.
By 1945, Balenciaga was one of the most revered haute couture designers. Where other couture houses were falling apart, the House of Balenciaga was dominating. After all, the War had put a considerable strain on international trade, leading to inflated prices of materials. As a result, the future of French fashion looked uncertain.
Then, stepped in Robert Ricci, son of Maria “Nina” Ricci. He had an idea that Lucien Lelong, the President of the Chambre put into action. The idea was to reinvent the world of haute couture. They intended to revive the enchantment women had with the industry. It was called the Theatre De La Mode, and it was held at the Louvre.
They displayed haute couture from 60 designers — Balenciaga, Madame Gres, Hermes, Balmain, Lanvin, etc. — in an art exhibit/fashion show. They showcased 1/3rd scale mannequins. This idea helped keep material costs low for the couturiers.
About 237 mannequins were on display; customers could select a design and get it tailored to their size. Alas, the exhibit was an overwhelming success, and it sparked public adoration for haute couture once again.
But Balenciaga knew a lot of work had to be done. By 1951, he was renowned as a fashion innovator. The first hint of his inventiveness came in the form of the balloon dress. With this design, he transformed the silhouette. By adding broad shoulders and removing the waist, he went against all design conventions.
The balloon dress stood up to the popular, curvy hourglass shape promoted by Christian Dior with his New Look.
Now, Balenciaga’s designs were becoming more linear and streamlined. He also preferred fluid lines that allowed him to alter clothes to the wearer’s natural waistline.
In 1953, a variation of the balloon dress, the balloon jacket, was introduced. It encased the torso and provided a base for the lady’s head.
In 1955, he came up with the Balenciaga tunic. While you may think it is rather plain and prosaic. This garment went against all styling conventions. The tunic allowed for more freeing silhouettes. During a time when sharper cuts, gaudy patterns, and tighter dresses were the norm, this was a sharp statement in fashion design.
This tunic led to the birth of the sack dress. It is more popularly known as the sack dress. This dress was unveiled two years later in 1957.
While it might look a little clunky, this was meant to be a statement piece. It did away with the norm of a slim waist and offered more freedom. It was so iconic that his student, Hubert de Givenchy, created his own take on it.
In 1958, Cristobal would introduce a new piece that would change his brand.
The baby doll dress was a development of the sack dress. It had a high-waisted frock and didn’t need a corset. Such is its influence that even today it continues to be reinterpreted on runways even.
In the same year, the fashion designer introduced the chemise dress which also did away with the firm waistline. This design along with the sack dress was copied by various manufacturers to fit every price range.
These trends of high waistlines and roomier shoulders shaped the new silhouette for the 50s. Arguably, his collective design innovation was the greatest contribution to the decade.
In 1959, the designer revealed the empire dress. It also had high waistlines much like the baby-doll dress. This design choice was a highlight of the 1958 “Empire” evening wear collection.
Although he didn’t invent the Empire line dress, his piece came complete with round-collared coats cut like kimonos.
Before we move on to the next decade, here’s an iconic photo of his atelier during 1955–56.
The Twilight Years (1960–68)
In 1960, the fashion designer created two masterpieces. One was the cocoon coat for the general public and the other was Queen Fabiola’s wedding dress. First, let’s start with the cocoon coat.
The coat liberated women from tight-fitting waistlines. Also, it highlighted the feminine and graceful lines of the wearer. It had volume and chic; a perfect staple for 60s haute couture.
Now, let us talk briefly about Queen Fabiola’s dress. It was an all-white dress that featured a high neckline trimmed in ermine and a 22-foot-long train. The dress was heavy and complicated to move.
Probably, we will never see a wedding dress like this. Of course, due to the use of ermine, and also because such an occasion has rarely been witnessed ever since.
The fashion designer’s innovative use of fabrics led him to work with the Swiss fabric house of Abraham. Abraham created the stiff silk gazar fabric that was unlike the pliable fabric used in his suits, dresses, and evening wear.
One highlight of his work showcasing this fabric is the 1961 chartreuse dress-cape. Funnily, it could be likened to a Comme des Garcons piece.
The garment showcases his abstraction of the body and innovative silhouette.
In 1962, the fashion designer created a suit and cape worn by Grace Kelly, the Princess of Monaco. It was a three-piece suit constructed from cheviot wool.
The ensemble’s pieces were inspired by the pullover and the cape — the latter very much popular during the decade.
In 1966, Balenciaga introduced a yellow knee-length coat. The coat showcases the linear silhouette of the 60s. The highlights of the coat were the perfect finishing and attractive patterns. Daring cuts were of course there.
In short, it showcased skilled tailoring. The color was also vibrant and intense which was typical of the 60s. It was worn by Bunny Mellon, a loyal client of Balenciaga’s.
By January 1968, he showcased his last collection. And in May, after nearly 30 years, Cristobal Balenciaga announced his retirement. Also, he established that his fashion house would be closed forever. Instead, he advised his clients to take their business to Givenchy. It was something that already happened often.
My Opinion on Balenciaga Today
I have a few words on what is happening right now. Balenciaga started with humble beginnings and grew into a massive brand. But it has lost sight of many things. Of course, decency is one of them.
We must remind ourselves that Cristobal Balenciaga was a famously private man. He gave only two interviews after he retired from Balenciaga, and those were with the Paris Match. On the other hand, we see the House of Balenciaga now revels in controversy. They are forcing trends and trying to create noise.
I believe good design speaks for itself. The reason people still talk about Cristobal Balenciaga is that he was enigmatic. Right now, the House of Balenciaga is desperate for attention. It is trying to break design conventions but lacks any sensibility. At least, when Cristobal broke boundaries, he never lost sight of good taste. Today, a famed fashion house has fallen because of poor creative choices and misguided rhetoric.