Famous names survive long after whatever it was that originally made them famous has been forgotten. How else do you explain fashion’s love affair with Cristobal Balenciaga? Few of those who trumpet his name have any idea why he is cited as the most influential couturier of the past 60 years.
The reason nobody knows what he did is not a reflection on his genius, but a powerful commentary on the transitory nature of fashion. Unlike the arts, clothes design is about dressing a moment. When that moment has gone, the fashion it inspired becomes meaningless.
The best might eventually come back as costume, studied for what it tells us about the period. Most does not.
Balenciaga died in 1972, two years after Mark Rothko, and three before Dmitri Shostakovich. Yet, while their work attracts even more interest today than when it was created, Balenciaga is forgotten by all but the most enthusiastic fashion supporters.
In July 2006, an exhibition of Balenciaga’s clothes showed at the Musée de la Mode in Paris, giving us a valuable opportunity to decide whether the considerable prestige that his name commands is actually justified. My view is that the modernity and originality of his ideas, although now more than 40 years old, would amaze fashion followers today as much as ever. They reflect a man who was the epitome of cool.
Now, in the hands of creative designer Nicolas Ghesquière, the Balenciaga label continues to epitomise cool and set trends that others follow – and move a mountain of accessories, particularly leather bags.
When a gushing journalist asked him what he would present new in his next collection, he looked at her in amazement and said, “New? Madam, I never do anything new.”
A remark, in my book, worthy of Rothko or Shostakovich.
(First published July 2006)
Picture; Cocoa-colored Balenciaga dress by Irving Penn, 1950