American Horror Story’s Myrtle Snow died screaming his name; if you only take a fictional TV witch’s dying word for it, Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) has had considerable cultural impact. Called ‘the master of us all’, by fellow couturier Christian Dior, Balenciaga’s influence on silhouette, line, spirit and aesthetic has been prolific so much that it has been copied, reimagined, assimilated and diluted through high street fashion. Indeed it’s hard to compute the truly genre-defining work Balenciaga himself produced; it is hard to see with the eyes of decades past and understand how radical his designs were at the time, when we’ve seen so much of what came after them.
The Spanish designer became one of Paris’s key couturiers in the golden age of couture, having left his home country as a result of the Spanish Civil War. While he founded his Parisian business in 1937, his work after the war in the fifties in reimagining the typical feminine silhouette was a radical departure from the hourglass shapes that had gone before. Balenciaga broadened the shoulders and let out waists, also pioneering cocoon shapes: an approach to the female body that celebrated shape, form and power, and not solely displaying its secondary sexual characteristics.
As Eduardo Dugois, founder of Instagram account @balenciagafiles, notes, ‘Cristóbal Balenciaga was a man ahead of his time. His creations were made from volume, and unlike Christian Dior who marked the waist, Balenciaga most often left women's bodies free. He led thinking about the elegance and comfort of the women he dressed.’
Balenciaga was not only appreciated by his clientele (which included the Spanish royal family) but by fellow designers. As Iolo Edwards of High Fashion Talk notes, ‘Cristóbal [Balenciaga] was your favourite designer’s favourite designer, with even Coco Chanel saying he was the only true couturier in the fifties.’ Balenciaga set a high bar for exploration through clothing, shored up by the way he has been remembered by the industry.
Balenciaga closed his house in 1968, four years before his death, having realised, as Dugois explains, ‘that the fashion he believed in no longer made sense.’ The house lay dormant until 1986, when it came under new ownership; Michel Goma–then a major player, having worked at Patou and run his own namesake label–joined as creative director between 1987-1992. He was succeeded by Dutch designer Josephus Thimister who was there for five years. A turning point of the house was when the 25-year-old Nicolas Ghesquière was named head (to much surprise, as Helmut Lang had been tipped for the role) and within a few seasons had brought a sleepy historical brand right back into contemporary consciousness. Ghesquière stayed at Balenciaga for 15 years, eventually stepping down in 2013. Alexander Wang stepped in for two years, leaving in 2015, when Demna Gvasalia of Vetements fame was appointed creative director.
Dugois points to the work of these successive creative directors in carrying Cristóbal Balenciaga’s torch, naming Ghesquière, Wang and Gvasalia as ‘all great creative directors who thought–and think–ahead of their time.’ If anything, the Balenciaga DNA is strengthened by each creative director’s incarnation. Edwards adds, ‘Balenciaga stands for masterful tailoring and innovation. Within those confines there are multiple universes of what Balenciaga looks like and produces.’
For the most part, today’s fashion fans are coming to Balenciaga late in its history. Stylist Kit Rimmer, who runs the Instagram account @ghesquilenciaga, points out that, ‘we have only started to appreciate [the house] post-Ghesquiere’s revival.’
‘Nicolas rekindled Balenciaga’s name by introducing him to a generation that barely knew him, immortalising his important legacy for fashion,’ Dugois concurs, highlighting how important skilful creative directors are to the maintenance of fashion memory.
Rimmer, too, points to Ghesquière’s tenure heading the brand (1997-2013) as a masterclass in how to continue a designer’s legacy. ‘If Cristobal had had a son, it would have been Nicolas [Ghesquière]. Ghesquière was able to mirror Balenciaga in so many ways, even down to basic fabrications. Balenciaga used great amounts of gazar and double-faced fabric; 40 years later, Ghesquière had to develop these fabrics himself, having gone to fabric fairs and been unable to find what he needed. He developed amazing textiles like sponge-backed fabrics and silk gazars, extending what Balenciaga himself was able to do back then.’ Like Balenciaga, Ghesquière was, ‘on a molecular level, pushing fashion forward through changing the materials.’
Indeed one might note that Balenciaga’s work in its scope and vision allows for more experimental interpretations than might be expected at another house. Rimmer explains, ‘Demna [Gvasalia] went off on a totally different tangent [from Ghesquière’s] and opened up a different universe. But it's wonderful: the opening looks from the A/W 20 show were really beautiful.’
Edwards agrees, noting ‘Balenciaga, even going back to the days of Cristóbal, always aims to be boldly in the forefront of what is going on in the world; capturing the imagination and aspirations of a lot of fans simply because of its audacity. Under Demna, it has shown this spirit again with the outside-the-box, “ugly” designs, and willingness to go there, even if [the concept initially] sounds stupid across the products and the brand communications.'
Ultimately, the upswing in interest–as seen in the proliferation of Balenciaga fan accounts on Instagram and the deluge of interaction each time Gvasalia’s Balenciaga releases even the tiniest piece of information–points to Cristóbal Balenciaga’s initial strong foundations for the brand. As Dugois states, ‘For me, Balenciaga represents the tomorrow.’ How thankful the fashion industry is that we had him in the past.