Balenciaga Cristobal (1895-1972). Spanish designer. In 1937, he started working in Paris. Soon after the war I attended the presentation of seven Balenciaga Collections, but I never saw so much as the nose of the great Cristobal peeking out through a door or a curtain of his atelier, not even when the applauses and bravos overwhelmed the select, calm, and well-mannered audience. I had the opportunity to meet him once, by chance, at three in the afternoon in a little bistro. He was alone, sad, and elegant, eating an omelette with black olives and exchanging tender looks with his dog, which, if I remember well, was one of those small bulldogs called “the dogs of the Queen of England.”
A malicious person told me that in his last years Balenciaga, somewhat obsessive and ever more lonely, kept in his breast-pocket a linen handkerchief with which he would clean his dog’s behind every time that the animal pooped in the street. Perhaps I shouldn’t begin a portrait of Balenciaga, this Grandee of Spain, for twenty years considered an authentic, unsurpassed artist and — according to his very few friends — a simple and human man, with some foolish gossip. But I think I had in me, after so many years, the same reaction which makes schoolboys scream, laugh and shove each other when they get out of school after hours of being kept inside. This because in Balenciaga’s atelier, the presentations had the atmosphere of a convent ruled by an extremely strict abbess, or that of a boarding school with the wicked headmistresses of certain German movies.
Balenciaga and the relationships with the media
Mademoiselle Renée, the implacable directress of the atelier on Avenue George V, had an almost sadistic relationship with journalists. Not only could one not speak, but one couldn’t cough and, not for any reason at all, not even the outbreak of a world war, could one leave the room before the end of the presentation. These rules applied also to the models, who were not to speak loudly in the dressing rooms and could not show any facial expression when out on the runway.
They were the ugliest models in Paris, but they managed to show great style without even the slightest concession: no jewels, no unusual hairdos, and no curly hair, which was abhorred. The famous Colette, with her Dracula-style walk, a ferocious bulldog look on her broad face, and hatred in her eyes, succeeded in selling more clothes than all the other models put together. One could not really say that these presentations were like parties, as was the case in all the other ateliers, from Dior to Fath.
One suffered this torture because it was redeemed by the beauty of the clothes, a real art exhibit that one could not ignore if you wanted to “know” about fashion. “A titan of fashion,” is what Cecil Beaton called him, expressing a sense of his greatness and his desire for solitude. He would see only a very few friends and his family, the brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews who managed the ateliers in San Sebastián, Madrid, and Barcelona. He didn’t worry about worldliness or about other designers.
Balenciaga and his gift
This extremely proud Spanish man, with a very simple life; this exceptional tailor whose only passion was his craft, who was almost crazily devoted to his work; this artist, who combined the refinement of Paris with the classicism of Spain, the dramatic black-and-white with the reds, turquoises, beiges, and yellows of Goya, was one of the most remarkable personalities of 20th century fashion. And though, like Greta Garbo, always invisible, he was also one of the most praised. If, when talking about many famous tailors, the words “precocious predestination” seem appropriate, in the case of Balenciaga one must truly speak of artistic gifts, of inborn genius like that of Giotto, supposedly a young shepherd when his artistic talent was discovered by Cimabue. The young Cristobal didn’t watch over sheep, but in Guetaria, his poor native village on the Basque coast, his future would have been as a fisherman or at the helm of his father’s boat.
But he preferred to sew at the side of his mother, who did extra work in order to add to the family’s meager income. The only grand, rich villa in town was occupied in Summertime by the Torres family, with their old grandmother, a former beauty from Madrid and still an exceptionally elegant woman. Watching the old lady come out of church dressed in a suit of white tussor, with a straw hat covered in brown chiffon knotted under her chin, it seems that the young Cristobal said to her ecstatically “You are so elegant”.
This aroused the interest of the Marquise, and the young boy continued, “I will create dresses as beautiful as yours.” In response came the playful challenge with which the Marquise gave him the task of copying her suit, which was by Poiret, with everything necessary to do so. Within five days, on his mother’s old sewing machine, a trembling Cristobal made an almost perfect copy. The Marquise became his patroness and helped him find a job in a fashion house in Madrid in order to learn the profession.
The first Balenciaga maison
In 1915, at the age of 20, Balenciaga opened his first atelier in San Sebastián. After a few years, he opened two more, in Madrid and Barcelona, which he named after his mother, Elisa. Every six months he would travel to Paris to buy patterns from the great designers, Chanel being his favorite. He also began to design his own patterns using those inspired rules of proportion (a jacket could miraculously fit several sizes) that he would never abbandon.
In 1937 the Spanish Civil War forced him to flee to Paris where, with a small amount of capital offered him by another Spanish refugee, he opened a head office in Rue George V. If his début Collection had been a failure, he would not have had the money to create a second. But, instead, he obtained glory and riches. Balenciaga was by this time already 42, and the long years of hardwork and privation had left a bad taste in his mouth, a pessimism in his heart, and presented a painful dilemma between his desire to be recognized and loved and his aversion to any kind of publicity and to journalists. “Dior c’est fou fou,” he would say, giving his opinion of that designer’s availability to the press and of his position in the spotlight.
Strangely enough, he shared with Cardin, who is exactly his opposite, the passion for houses (he had six), not to live in them, but just to collect them. His austere apartment in Madrid was done and redone several times only to have him conclude, after the first night spent there, that it was too noisy. His 16th century country house, the Reinerie, was outfitted with luxury bathrooms, every possible domestic appliance, and precious old rustic French furniture, only to be pronounced “too sad” after just a single day.
He would spend some time each Summer in San SebastiÄn, where his sister Augustina took care of him like a loving mother. In Barcelona, where his atelier was managed by his nephew and godson José Balenciaga, he never set foot.
His collections and the withdrawn from the scenes
Unlike all the other celebrity couturiers of the time who changed the shape and line of their clothes every six months (e.g. a trapezium, the letter H, a scissors-shape, or a swallow-shape), his changes were imperceptible but fundamental. When he came out with his famous black “sack,” a scandal was made of it and the style was openly ridiculed. And yet, that extremely well-proportioned sack became popular, and later, varied ever so slightly and fastened loosely in the front, became a tunic of such purity that it is imitated even today.
His most famous tweed suit, with the off-center fringed neck and fastened in front by four large buttons, continues to be a source of lessons for other designers. The off-center neck was his obsession, and if he found himself in front of a lady in a suit with a close-fitting neck, he would instinctively open it. “The stem has to have air all around in order to regally support the flower that is the head.” And on those heads, in his hats, he would express his inspired madness. But one has to remember that his pioneering lunacies (the short balloon dress, the immense kimono, the architectural asymmetry) could only be worn by certain women, “those” women of whom there were perhaps only five in the entire world.
Among his clients were women such as the Marquise Llanzol, the most elegant lady in Spain; Loel Guinness, a thin, Mexican brunette who wore two strings of very precious pearls that interrupted the black of a jersey-and-mink dress, created exclusively for her by the great master; the Duchess of Windsor, as fanatic as he about the small details; the grey-haired Countess Idarica Gazzoni, with a very distinct elegance known all over Europe; not to mention his royal clients such as Fabiola of Belgium. These were the clients he liked, women who were decisive, confident in their choices and naturally elegant, because one of his few stated beliefs was precisely this: “No tailor can make a woman elegant if she isn’t that way naturally.”
Alhough he was a man little interested in money, as seen in his constant rejection of attractive and commercially lucrative offers, especially from America (he never seriously considered an invitation to design a line of a prêt-à-porter), he had a sure sense of the value of his work, and when buying from him even the most illustrious and titled clients paid for their clothes on delivery. His was the only fashion house without accounts receivable. In 1968, he decided to retire.
Theater and cinema
In his long career, there had also been opportunities to create costumes for the theater and cinema. These included the dresses for Alice Cocea and Suzet Mais in Histoire de Rire by Armand Salacrou (1940), the black sequin mantle, the mantle of death, for Christiane Barry in Cocteau’s Orphée, the costumes for Arletty in Bolero by Jean Boyer, and those for Ingrid Bergman in Anatole Litvak’s Anastasia. In 1973 Diana Vreeland dedicated a retrospective, The World of Balenciaga, to him at the Costume Institute of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. In 1986, also in New York, the Fashion Institute of Technology organized the exhibit Balenciaga, and the following year the designer was commemorated by the town of San SebastiÄn with an exposit at Miramar Palace.
From a chapter that Bettina Ballard, one of his very few intimate friends, dedicated to him in her book In My Fashion, three passages will illustrate his exceptional and contrasting character. About his appearance: “In 1937, when I met him for the first time, Balenciaga was a Spanish man with a gentle voice and a skin as white as an egg-shell; his hair was black, straight, shiny and combed backward on the well proportionate head; his thin lips offered a sudden smile only to express a sincere pleasure; his was an instinctive charm which inspired devotion”.
“He was a simple soul, he knew little of Spain and of its art. I never succeeded in taking him to Prado; he never travelled and he returned from his short journeys to Italy, where he lived by cultivated friends who told him about the country’s artistic beauties, with a sense of stupor and coyness.” After describing his Paris mansion furnished with Louis XVI furniture, Collections of precious Spanish bronzes or ivory Bilboquets, Bettina Ballard continued: “Not a single painting on the walls, neither music, nor a book.”
A poor life gathered around his fashion, for which he cried at the end of every Collection, because he missed the air to continue to live.
Nicolas Ghesquière takes over Balenciaga
In February 2003 the firms’s first American boutique opens in New York on West 22nd Street, as decided by the designer of the maison Nicolas Ghesquiere. The opening is combined with the griffe‘s first presentation in America, during Fashion Week.
Still in 2003 the firm’s only boutique in France, on Avenue George V in Paris, is renovated. The Balenciaga Museum of Guetaria, the designer’s hometown, should be completed and activated within 2003. For the time being, hats, dresses, sketches, jewellery and photographs of the designer can be seen at the Cristobal Balenciaga Fondation in an exhibit of 2,400 square feet in the center of the Basque town.