Designer Profiles: Balenciaga

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Fashions only true couturier

Cristóbal Balenciaga was a Spanish dress designer who created elegant ball gowns and other classic designs who also had a reputation as a couturier of uncompromising standards and was referred to as "the master of us all" by Christian Dior. His label from 1919 till 1968 spanned over 50 years and still, his place in fashion history far exceeds this nearing a century.

Young Balenciaga

Balenciaga was born in Getaria, province of Gipuzkoa, Spain on 21 January 1895. He began seriously studying dressmaking at the tender age of 10, when the death of his father, a sea captain, made it necessary for his mother a seamstress to support the family by sewing. As a child, Balenciaga often spent time with his mother as she worked. At the age of twelve, he began work as the apprentice of a tailor. When he 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.

Becoming a fashion designer

However, it wasn’t until Balenciaga’s first trip to Paris at aged 15 that he was inspired to become a couturier, and by age 20 in 1919, he had his own dressmaking establishment at the fashionable summer resort of San Sebastián in Spain which expanded to include branches in Madrid and Barcelona. Balenciaga is notable as one of the few couturiers in fashion history who could not only use his own hands to create, but to pattern, cut, and sew the designs which symbolized the height of his artistry

Balenciaga became a national treasure and even The Spanish royal family and the aristocracy wore his designs, unfortunately, the Spanish Civil War put an end to this partnership and forced Balenciaga to close his stores and he moved to Paris. There he started building from the ground up for a second time, by opening his Paris couture house on Avenue George V in August 1937.

Early 1900s Balenciaga Designs

It wasn’t until the post-war years that the full scale of the inventiveness of Balenciaga’s highly original designs became evident. In fact, it was a very poignant era for the fashion industry - The 1950’s, designers like Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain, and Coco Chanel emerged, creating pieces very representative to their fashion houses and to their own styles. Cristobal Balenciaga became an important protagonist and great mastermind of this period so much so that he became known as "the king of fashion".

The reason Balenciaga was the most eye-catching designer of the 1950s was because of his structural designs, which had never before been seen in the fashion world. He was a master of tailoring, and he was able to translate his illustrations from paper to real life. His advanced tailoring skills gave him an advantage over designers all over the world, making him a major target for customers.

For the next 30 years, his collections featured sumptuously elegant dresses and suits. In 1951, Balenciaga totally transformed women's silhouette, broadening the shoulders and removing the waist. Clothes we think as typical of that decade are mostly dilutions of his work.

In 1955, he designed the tunic dress, which later developed into the chemise dress of 1957. In 1959, his work culminated in the Empire line, with high-waisted dresses and coats cut like a kimono. Balenciaga then helped popularise the trend toward capes and flowing clothes without waistlines and the use of plastic for rainwear in the mid-1960s.

Balenciaga Designing

In 1968, at age 74 Balenciaga closed his fashion houses in Paris, Barcelona, and Madrid, one after the other he then retired and returned to Spain. Balenciaga was referred to as "the only couturier in the truest sense of the word" by Coco Chanel, who continued, "The others are simply fashion designers". On the day of his death, on 23 March 1972, Women's Wear Daily ran the headline "The King is Dead".

Since 2011 the purpose-built Museo Balenciaga has exhibited examples of his work in his birth town Getaria. Many of the 1,200 pieces in the collection were supplied by his pupil Hubert de Givenchy and clients such as Grace Kelly. Today the Balenciaga fashion house continues under the direction of Demna Gvasalia and under the ownership of the Kering.

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