BALENCIAGA,
Born Guetaria, Spain, 1895
Died Valencia, Spain, 1972

Austere and remote, priestly in his devotion to the perfection of cut, Balenciaga stands ‘a torch among tapers’ in relation to his contemporaries. He is unquestionably the greatest designer of the century, although frequently his work was too subtle or radical to be understood by the press and his fellow designers. His antecedents were as enigmatic as his persona and much of what we know of him is near the realm of myth. His family was humble and his life in fashion began – so the famous but possibly apocryphal story goes – at a tender age, when he admired the DRÉCOLL dress of the Marquesa de Casa Torres as she walked past him in the street. Intrigued (presumably by his precociousness), she allowed Balenciaga to copy the dress. So well did he do it that she sent him to Paris to meet Drécoll. After this Balenciaga’s ambition was fired. When he was eighteen he opened a shop in San Sebastian and followed this by setting himself up as a couturier, under the name of Eisa, in Madrid and Barcelona. IN 1937 he abandoned Franco’s repressed Spain and arrived in London. He quickly moved on to Paris and opened his French house, to mixed response. His approach to fashion at this stage was very Spanish: he favoured the drama and dignity of stiff, formal materials of the sort that Goya or Velasquez painted. At the outset of World War II, he returned to Madrid.

After the war he reopened in Paris and began his twenty-year climb to fashion supremacy. His work was completely in the couture tradition and each collection made a crisp and clear fashion statement with clothes which had grown logically from previous collections. His clothes always had a dignified, structural quality, even when made in filmy materials. It is no coincidence that his favourite material was silk gazar – it has weight and body which give it great sculptural possibilities.

Clothes are ephemeral, but Balenciaga left a lasting imprint on the way women look. He changed the shape of garments previously considered standardized. For example, he invented the stand-away collar (reputedly to mask the problem of Carmel Snow’s short neck) and the three-quarter length sleeve. Although a brilliant tailor, he moved away from the close fit of the New Look and created softly unshaped jackets for his suits in the early 1950s. He also evolved the inelegantly named sack dress. His evening looks were as formal as an infanta, but they also contained a great deal of fantasy. He understood scale and proportion and the importance of the balance of an outfit. Exaggeratedly large or minutely small hats were used to state the silhouette with devastating succinctness. He invented the minute pill-box hat.

The ‘Spanishness’ of Balenciaga cannot be overestimated. As the ‘true son of a strong country’, he followed that long line of artists from Goya and Zurbaran to Miró and Picasso: his colours were those of the bullring, flamenco dancers and the Spanish earth; his cut reproduced the simple perfection of the monk’s habit. A religious man, he had a conception of harmony which he wished to create in his clothes. He understood that elegance came from elimination of detail and perfection of cut. With his infallible instinct for what was right for its time, his decent use of material and his faultless taste, he was one of the few designers to elevate dressmaking to the level of art.

Balenciaga made life very difficult for everyone. He moved the time of his press showings and (along with GIVENCHY) presented his clothes weeks after the other designers. He never allowed a dress to leave until he was satisfied, no matter how pressing the customer’s demands (rumour has it that he watched fittings through a peephole in the fitting room wall so that he could later instruct his tailors how to correct the fit). His customers were in partnership with him to achieve perfection – regardless of time or cost.

Loathing publicity and refusing to compromise, this stiff, taciturn man, who closed his doors in 1968 with the words ‘It’s a dog’s life’, created the most marvelous clothes of the twentieth century. His legacy to fashion is the continued influence of his design precepts, carried on by GIVENCHY, UNGARO and CORRÈGES, all of whom were trained by the maestro.

Major perfumes: Le Dix (1948); Quadrille (1955)