In Paris, Balenciaga had a partner, Vladzio Zawrorowski d'Attainville, who designed hats, while Nicholas Biscarondo looked after the business side (as well as Balenciaga’s sexual needs). Balenciaga presented his first collection in August 1937, charging about 3,500 francs for a dress, and earning 193,200 francs in a month — a good start.
Balenciaga was born in Getaria, a fishing town in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, on January 21, 1895. His mother was a seamstress, and as a child Balenciaga often spent time with her as she worked. At the age of twelve, he began work as the apprentice of a tailor. When Balenciaga was a teenager, the Marchioness de Casa Torres, the foremost noblewoman in his town, became his customer and patron. She sent him to Madrid, where he was formally trained in tailoring. (Balenciaga is notable as one of the few couturiers in fashion history who could use their own hands to design, cut, and sew the models which symbolized the height of his artistry.)
Balenciaga was successful during his early career as a designer in Spain. He opened a boutique in San Sebastián, Spain, in 1919, which expanded to include branches in Madrid and Barcelona. The Spanish royal family and the aristocracy wore his designs, but when the Spanish Civil War forced him to close his stores, Balenciaga moved to Paris. Balenciaga opened his Paris couture house on Avenue George V in August 1937.
Evening dress, 1951
Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre (January 21, 1895, Spain – March 23, 1972, Spain) was a Spanish Basque fashion designer and the founder of the Balenciaga fashion house. In Paris, Balenciaga had a partner, Vladzio Zawrorowski d'Attainville, who designed hats, while Nicholas Biscarondo looked after the business side (as well as Balenciaga’s sexual needs). Balenciaga presented his first collection in August 1937, charging about 3,500 francs for a dress, and earning 193,200 francs in a month — a good start.
Balenciaga did not believe in change for change's sake. He worked methodically from season to season on specific ideas to refine and perfect them. Throughout the 1950s he worked on the lean line known popularly as the 'sack'. This dress is one variation on this theme. It has a slim, semi-fitted outline with a round neck, elbow-length sleeves and a belt. This dress is made in plain weave wool. The back is draped and shaped like a cocoon. The EISA label identifies it as the product of one of Balenciaga's Spanish outlets in Barcelona, San Sebastian or Madrid. Spanish clothes were less expensive than their Paris equivalents. They were made in less costly Spanish fabrics and business overheads in Spain were lower than in France. (V&A Museum)
Jacket and skirt, 1954-1955
This suit comprises a fitted jacket and slim-fitting skirt with a kick pleat at the back. It was shown in Balenciaga's Winter collection in 1954 as model no. 55. It reveals Balenciaga’s debt to his training in tailoring in Spain and his capacity for choosing fabrics fit for purpose. His suits were highly regarded and commanded high prices. In the early 1950s, a made-to-measure woollen suit from Balenciaga cost about £112, a sum well beyond the reach of most consumers.
He was adept at manipulating firm fabrics. The style of jacket relies for effect on careful fitting to the body in front and gentle fullness at the back, and in the setting of the sleeves. Balenciaga was renowned in the trade for inspecting and resetting sleeves that were not perfect.
Tweed was a sturdy woollen fabric that appealed to Balenciaga because of the optical illusions created by the two or more colours in the indistinct flecked pattern.
Evening dress, 1948
Balenciaga was the most exclusive fashion house in Paris immediately after World War II. The Spanish-born couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972), regarded by his peers as ‘the Master’, had moved to Paris from Spain in 1937. By 1952 he had 232 employees there and was producing 356 new designs per year. His clients, admitted to his salon only after a personal introduction, included many cosmopolitan women of different nationalities. Gloria Guinness (1912-80), who donated this dress to the V&A, was one of Balenciaga’s most loyal customers.
The style of this dress reflects the exaggerated padded hip shape of the ‘New Look’ made famous by Balenciaga’s contemporary, Christian Dior (1905-57). However, its sombre black, and pared down design is very typical of Balenciaga, who was inspired by Spanish religious dress and the paintings of clerics by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664).
Evening ensemble, 1967
This evening ensemble comprises a sleeveless dress and matching cape. It represents several aspects of the work of the Spanish couturier, Cristóbal Balenciaga, who was active in Paris from 1937 till his retirement in 1968, only a year after the outfit was made for his faithful client, Mrs Loel Guinness.
Firstly, it relies on deep knowledge of the sculptural possibilities of certain firm textiles, and on letting the textile determine the cut of the garments. Balenciaga worked with the Swiss textile manufacturer Abraham in creating this fabric, silk gazar.
Secondly, it typifies the increasing simplicity and abstraction of his designs from the early 1960s onwards when applied decoration began to play a lesser role than dramatic shapes.
Thirdly, it reveals familiarity with the austere quotidian dress of the Catholic clergy (mantle and soutane). The area of Spain from which Balenciaga came was densely populated by such figures clad in black – and the colour, layered effect, circular and tubular shapes relate closely to their garb. In other respects it is entirely modern.
Skirt suit, 1951
This suit, comprising a loose-fitting jacket and a slim-line skirt, was shown in Balenciaga's Winter collection in 1950 as model no. 24. It reveals Balenciaga’s debt to his training in tailoring in Spain and is an early example of the loose-fitting styles which he refined over the 20 years after the second world war. In the early 1950s, a made-to-measure woollen suit from Balenciaga cost about £112, a sum well beyond the reach of most consumers.
The magyar sleeve (a sleeve cut in one with the body) reveals how adept Balenciaga was at less traditional forms of construction. He was renowned in the trade for inspecting and resetting sleeves that were not perfect.
The slubbed nature of the tweed conceals the beauty of the cut whereas in the original mannequin parade, it was clearly visible because a plain wool was used. Tweed was a sturdy woollen fabric that appealed to Balenciaga because of the optical illusions created by the two or more colours in the indistinct flecked pattern.
Evening dress, 1960
This dress is a one-off commission, not a dress from a collection. It was designed specifically for Madame Alec Weisweiller for the 18th birthday party of her daughter (who was also dressed by Balenciaga). She was a real Parisian personality and friendly with Balenciaga and Cocteau.
This dress is interesting for being a particularly Dior-like Balenciaga design. Balenciaga favoured linear shapes and bold colours and embroidery, which is arguably contrasted by this dress of delicate floral patterns.
Jacket, skirt and scarf, ca. 1956-1957
Balenciaga was a perfectionist in cutting and seaming, and was renowned for reworking garments even when they were being worn by a client. In the 1950s, Balenciaga’s designs became increasingly pared down, foreshadowing the simple geometry of 1960s fashion, as seen here. Balenciaga enjoyed the challenge of creating garments for older women. In this suit, the forgiving gathers of the skirt would conceal a less than perfect figure.
Evening cape, February 1963
This evening cape by Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972) is made from white gazar. It is double-breasted with four covered buttons and has a deep flounce seam and inset pocket in the flounce. It was designed to be worn with matching dress and is typical of the pared-down elegance of his creations of the 1960s.
Born in Spain, Balenciaga moved to Paris to set up a successful business as a couturier in 1937 in the heart of the Golden Triangle (the centre of the production and consumption of luxury goods). By the time he designed this cape in 1963 he had been considered the master of couture for some years, renowned for his innovative cut, his consummate skill in design, and his perfectionism.
Balenciaga collaborated with textile manufacturers in the development of new fabrics. Gazar was the result of his working relationship with the Swiss textile manufacturer Abraham. It is made of silk and has good body, thus lending itself to sculptural designs.
Gloria Guinness (née Rubio y Alatorre) had this cape made. She was a regular patron of Balenciaga's establishment in Paris. An elegant socialite and writer of the mid-20th century, she married three times, her final husband being Group Captain Thomas Loel Guinness MP, heir to the Guinness beer fortune.
Evening dress, spring/summer 1952
The dress, shown here as it was displayed for the V&A’s 2007 exhibition, The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957, reveals Balenciaga's preference for stiff, matte fabrics and his liking for the sombre black of the dress of the Spanish clergy - both contemporary and as depicted in the paintings of his fellow countryman, the artist Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664).
This evening coat typifies the superb cut and increasingly monastic simplicity of his designs in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Its only accent is the large glittering jet button. The shapes of such garments owed much to his knowledge of ecclesiastical vestments.
In the 1950s, Balenciaga’s designs became increasingly pared down, foreshadowing the simple geometry of 1960s fashion. In 1957 his 'sack' line created a stir, because it was so radically different from the constricting hour-glass shape that dominated fashion. This example shows how the dress hangs suspended from the shoulders like an envelope around the body, letting it breathe. For many, the first version of the sack was too radical, and in succeeding years, the designer reduced its fullness. It had a certain longevity, the skirt of this example being shortened by 7cm in the 1960s to bring it in line with new fashions.
Evening dress, 1954
Plain fabrics show up defects in any aspect of dressmaking so this dress, shown here prepared for the V&A’s 2007 exhibition, The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957, reveals his craftsmanship. He created this elegant sleeveless summer gown in a simple, pared-down shape in a stiff ribbed cotton, the type of fabric which provided opportunities for his famed 'sculpted' shapes. It is displayed here under a pea-green 'duster' coat (T.230-1984).
Jacket and skirt suit, 1954
This suit is a fine example of his tailoring skills, acquired during apprenticeship in San Sebastian. He was meticulous in making sure that the sleeves sat perfectly on the shoulders. Tweed was a favourite fabric because of the optical illusions created in its flecked or textured pattern.
Evening dress, 1953-1954
Throughout the 1950s Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) designed a series of extravagant and inventive evening dresses (mainly in fine silk taffeta) that were based on immense drapes and flounces. In this dress he confines the bouffant drapes to the back, while in contrast the front has a simple appearance with a V-neck and a straight, very narrow skirt, slit at the centre front hem to allow movement.
Evening dress, 1958
In 1957 and 1958 Balenciaga produced a group of flounced lace dresses. They were known as 'Baby Doll' dresses. This one has a provocative tight black crêpe de Chine underdress. You can see it clearly through the semi-transparent black lace overdress. This overdress is very wide and flared. It has short sleeves and a low waist with a gathered flounced skirt. Two giant black satin bows mark the middle of the neck and the middle of the waist. They also add to the child-like theme.
Evening dress and cape, 1965
Balenciaga had a natural affinity for black - his native Spain provided abundant inspiration in the black of peasant garb, of traditional mourning, of religious orders and of courtly attire as depicted by such artists as Velazquez and Zurbaran. Balenciaga used black in an uncompromising manner to create powerful fashion statements that attracted clients with a taste for drama. He composed evening gowns that were adventurous in their explorations of volume but never strayed into the realm of the outlandish. The only decoration is the artificial flowers at the hem of the dress and the collar of the cape.
He used silks with a weight and substance necessary to achieve and retain unusual silhouettes; like this Gazar, a thick silk fabric with a stiff finish, specially created for Balenciaga by the textile firm Abraham of Switzerland.
This dress and cape contain the 'Eisa' label, the Spanish branch of the House of Balenciaga, named after the designer's mother.
Dress, Winter 1959
Balenciaga worked on specific ideas from season to season to refine and perfect them. Throughout the 1950s he worked on the lean line known popularly as the 'sack'. This dress is one variation on this theme. It has a slim, semi-fitted outline with a round neck, elbow-length sleeves and a belt. The dress fastens with a zip at the back. This type of dress is simple and supremely elegant. It explains why fellow designers hailed Balenciaga as 'the Master'.
Evening dress, 1965-1966
Dresses in the Empire or Josephine style had a high waist-line under the bust. Balenciaga kept faith with this style, which was one of his favourites. The result was a number of outstanding designs, including the 'Amphora' dress shown here. Clever cutting and the use of a crisp silk created the cocoon-like back of the dress. Balenciaga finished the back with an enormous knotted sash. This extravagant feature is typical of his work. From the front the gown is a lean sheath with a strapless neckline. The neckline is slightly padded to stand away from the body.
Jacket and skirt, ca. 1964
This understated ensemble reveals the supreme talents of Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972). The cut is impeccable, and is matched by the finishing. The refinement manifested in Balenciaga's clothes pervaded his entire establishment. In 1972 José Maria Arielza described it thus: 'this fashion house had a curious monastic seal, in which there was no room for loud and outspoken people, nor for laughter and disorder. Everthing was done in an atmosphere of silence and efficiency: fashion shows, work rehearsals. Even among his models there was a sign of restraint, no airs or graces. To see his show was to be present at a pure aesthetic spectacle, reverent and organised' (El Diario Vasco, August 1972).
This stylish outfit was worn by Mrs Opal Holt. Mrs Holt's extensive wardrobe of fashionable dress donated to the Museum ranges from the 1930s to the 1970s. The more than 100 objects - day and evening wear together with accessories - represent her acquired taste. Mrs Holt bought her clothes in London, Paris and New York, and the collection features works by many famous designers, including Dior and Givenchy.
Evening dress, 1955
Evening dress of yellow satin, embroidered with matching silk thread and gold pailletes and lined with matching chiffon. The separate, inner lining is of white silk, lined with matching chiffon.
The dress consists of a strapless, boned bodice joined to a skirt which is tightly gathered at the centre back. A series of ruffles gives the skirt a bustle effect.
Le Mouton Noir, 1960
Black lace frilled Evening Coat called 'Le Mouton Noir'. It is full-length, semi-circular and is entirely covered with lace flounces.
Evening dress, 1962
Short evening dress of white wild silk, with hand embroidered coloured floral motifs in the Chinese style. It is fitted and has a wide round neck, slightly lower at the back. It is sleeveless and has a side zip fastening. The dress is fully lined with white silk.
Evening outfit, August 1959
Evening dress (croquis no.70,049) embroidered with silver strip, pastes and sequins. it has a low round neck and is sleeveless. The long skirt is gathered at the waist.
Evening dress, February 1961
Evening dress of bright pink gazar and lined with pink silk. It is full length and strapless with a waisted, boned foundation. It is a fitted sheath to mid-thigh, slightly shorter in the front and curving to a soft V shape at the back. It has three deep flounces from bodice to hem, a centre back zip fastening and a narrow train attached to the foundation and the centre back waist.
Evening ensemble, ca. 1950
Spanish-born Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972) ranks among the leading couturiers of the twentieth century. The Balenciaga garments and accessories in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum serve as a catalogue of the designer's most distinctive work, from his toreador-like beaded boleros to his precisely tailored suits, from sack-backed day dresses to artful millinery creations. The range of dates of the objects identified as highlights of the collection represent the prime years of Balenciaga's oeuvre, from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s. The garments in the Brooklyn Museum collection illustrate Balenciaga's design evolution over the course of his career, a process that allowed new shapes to emerge without rendering his previous work obsolete. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)
Evening ensemble, fall/winter 1963–64
Dress, spring/summer 1964
Cocktail dress, spring/summer 1948
Evening dress, fall/winter 1957
Evening dress, ca. 1945
Ball gown, spring/summer 1948
Keenly historicist, Balenciaga invented a fantasy of eighteenth-century court dress, knowing that Marie-Antoinette favored overdresses with swags anchored by roses. Sustained by wide panniers also appropriated from eighteenth-century fashion, Balenciaga renewed the Rococo rose for the 1940s and 1950s.
Evening dress, fall/winter 1965–66
Evening dress, 1950
Evening ensemble, 1956–58
Cocktail dress, 1962
Ensemble, fall/winter 1950–51
Evening dress, fall/winter 1961
Evening dress, 1964
Evening ensemble, fall/winter 1950–51
However, it was not until the post-war years that the full scale of the inventiveness of this highly original designer became evident. In 1951, he totally transformed the silhouette, broadening the shoulders and removing the waist. In 1955, he designed the tunic dress, which later developed into the chemise dress of 1957. And eventually, in 1959, his work culminated in the Empire line, with high-waisted dresses and coats cut like kimonos.
In 1960 he made the wedding dress for Fabiola de Mora y Aragón when she married king Baudouin I of Belgium. The Queen later donated her wedding dress to the Cristóbal Balenciaga Foundation.
His often spare, sculptural creations were considered masterworks of haute couture in the 1950s and 1960s.
Balenciaga closed his house in 1968 at the age of 74 after working in Paris for 30 years. He decided to retire and closed his fashion houses in Paris, Barcelona and Madrid, one after the other.
He taught fashion design classes, inspiring other designers such as Oscar de la Renta, André Courrèges, Emanuel Ungaro, Mila Schön and Hubert de Givenchy. Today the Balenciaga fashion house continues under the direction of Alexander Wang and under the ownership of the Gucci Group.
Balenciaga died March 23, 1972 in Jávea, Spain.
On 24 March 2011 at San Francisco’s M.H. de Young Museum they celebrated the opening of “Balenciaga and Spain,” a 120-piece fashion retrospective of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s career. “You can’t even measure it,” said Rodarte designer Laura Mulleavy of Balenciaga’s influence. The $2,500-a-ticket fund-raiser for the museum drew 350 guests, including Marissa Mayer, Jamie Tisch, Gwyneth Paltrow, Orlando Bloom, Balthazar Getty, Maggie Rizer, Connie Nielsen, Maria Bello and Mia Wasikowska.
The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World by Mary Blume
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 5, 2013)
Amazon: The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World
A sparkling life of the monumental fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga
When Cristóbal Balenciaga died in 1972, the news hit the front page of The New York Times. One of the most innovative and admired figures in the history of haute couture, Balenciaga was, said Schiaparelli, “the only designer who dares do what he likes.” He was, said Christian Dior,“the master of us all.”
But despite his extraordinary impact, Balenciaga was a man hidden from view. Unlike today’s celebrity designers, he saw to it that little was known about him, to the point that some French journalists wondered if he existed at all. Even his most notable and devoted clients—Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Hutton, a clutch of Rothschilds—never met him.
But one woman knew Balenciaga very well indeed. The first person he hired when he opened his Paris house (then furnished with only a table and a stool) was Florette Chelot, who became his top vendeuse—as much an adviser as a saleswoman. She witnessed the spectacular success of his first collection, and they worked closely for more than thirty years, until 1968, when Balenciaga abruptly closed his house without telling any of his staff. Youth-oriented fashion was taking over, Paris was in upheaval, and the elder statesman wanted no part of it.
In The Master of Us All , Mary Blume tells the remarkable story of the man and his house through the eyes of the woman who knew him best. Intimate and revealing, this is an unprecedented portrait of a designer whose vision transformed an industry but whose story has never been told until now.
More Fashion Designers at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Art
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