Balenciaga’s approach to fashion relied less on sketching designs first but rather building the item of dress, starting with the characteristics of the fabric. This fabric-driven approach led to unique designs and influenced some of the world’s foremost fashion designers, including Oscar de la Renta, Emanuel Ungaro and Hubert de Givenchy. The V&A Museum in London is exhibiting a selection of his work in its “Balenciaga – Shaping fashion” show until 18 February 2018.
Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre was born on 21 January 1895 in Getaria, Spain. As a child he spent often time with his mother, who was a seamstress, watching her work and at the age of 12, he started an apprenticeship at a tailor. Formal training as a tailor in Madrid followed, sent by his patron, the Marchioness de Casa Torres. By age 20 he ran his own dressmaking firm with studios in Donostia San Sebastian, followed by houses in Madrid and Barcelona, and became the country’s leading couturier.
The Spanish Civil War forced him to close up shop in 1937 and immigrate to Paris to inaugurate his first workshop on George V Avenue. From that moment, talent and fame spread throughout Europe and royalty as well as film stars lined up wanting to be dressed in a Balenciaga original.
His influence on the world of fashion was considerable and his designs popularised flowing clothes without waist lines and capes. In 1946-47 he presented the barrel line while in 1950 his trademark sleeve and balloon skirts reigned supreme. He’s the father of the baby-doll dress and the peacock tail dress. He also used new materials such as plastic for a range of his designs, including rainwear. Coco Chanel called him “the only couturier in the truest sense of the world” while Christian Dior referred to him as the master of all.
Following designing the uniforms of Air France hostesses and 1968 spring collection, Balenciaga retired in 1968 at the age of 74, closing his fashion houses in Paris, Barcelona and Madrid. He died on 23 March 1972 in Xàbia, Spain.
Samples of his work are on permanent show at the Museo Balenciaga in his birth town of Getaria with many of the 1200 pieces supplied by his pupil Hubert de Givenchy and clients including the late Grace Kelly. The museum was opened on 7 June 2011 by Queen Sofia of Spain and in the presence of Hubert de Givenchy, honorific president of the Balenciaga Foundation.