25 March 2020

Balenciaga, the phoenix of fashion

by Eugénie Rousak

It’s hard to imagine that the trapezoidal Babydoll dress, the nailed it bag Motorcycle and the chunky sneaker Triple S could have anything in common. Universe, styles, creators, they are all opposites. And yet, these emblematic pieces have contributed to the fame of only one brand: Balenciaga! While the latest collections are now in the spotlight, the history of this century-old House has not always been as smooth as the gazar. After the pharaminous success of its creator, it almost remained forever a memory of the 1950s. But like a phoenix, Balenciaga was reborn from its boleros to sparkle on the catwalks.

Born in 1895 in the Spanish Basque Country, the young Cristóbal Balenciaga could very well have become a sailor like his father or a priest like his uncle. But the young man was destined for a completely different career, following in the footsteps of his mother, a seamstress. Although he was an apprentice and worked for a fashion store, Cristóbal Balenciaga was above all a self-taught genius. His method? Buying pieces signed by Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet or Coco Channel to sew them, analyzing the assembly, studying the cuts and learning the architecture of the garments. Both surprising and efficient, this process earned her the title of “couturier in the true sense of the word, capable of cutting the materials himself, assembling a creation and making the seams”, the others being only fashion designers. Like an architect, the young Spaniard began to build his first clothes and will be possessed by haute couture until his death.

Between Spain and France

When he was barely 25 years old, Cristóbal Balenciaga opened his first House in San Sebastián, then in Barcelona and Madrid. The success is immediate, he even dresses the royal family! This apotheosis should surely have lasted many years, but fate led him elsewhere. When war broke out in the country in 1936, the young Spaniard fled his native land, leaving behind his fashion houses, his workshops, his loyal customers and his dreams. It took much more to break the talented couturier, and like a phoenix he reinvented himself in the French capital. Setting his suitcases down at number 10 Avenue George V, he gets his revenge by invading Paris with embroidery and lace with his first collection, inspired by the Spanish Renaissance, capes straight from the bullfight arenas and Infanta dresses so dear to the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. While the Second World War led to the closure of many Parisian stores, the Spanish genius resisted. Playing again with his destiny, he took advantage of the shortage of fabric to rework his cuts and create new shapes with less raw materials. Under the delicate and determined gestures of his scissors, new minimalist fashion trends emerge. Like an architect, he reworks his models to give a new tone to the construction of clothing, minimizing the number of seams. Far from Dior’s New Look, the Balenciaga woman is free in her movements, wrapped in ample and puffy forms.

The collections of the 50s confirm this desire for deconstruction with models that embrace the body in geometric shapes without squeezing it. In semi-adjusted suits, balloon jackets, Baby Doll and bag dresses, the new silhouette of the woman triumphs in the world. But this Spanish revolution does not stop with new models, Cristóbal Balenciaga being a true fabric beekeeper. In the 60s he joined forces with the Swiss Gustave Zumsteg to create two very special fabrics: gazar and zagar. As shiny as they are impertinent, these airy materials allow him to imagine new shapes. Like a sculptor, the Spaniard carves into these fabrics to tame tight weaves and build avant-garde pieces. And these models with their surrealist shapes are an unprecedented success! Real stylistic tornadoes worn by Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly or the Air France stewardesses, for whom the couturier imagined the uniform in 1968! At the height of his abstract and conceptual empire, Cristóbal Balenciaga felt the massive arrival of ready-to-wear. Not wanting to witness a degradation of haute couture so dear to him, the Spaniard preferred to close his houses in Paris, Madrid, Barcelona and San Sebastian and retired in 1968.

The descent and the take-off

After the death of the master in 1972, the House was predestined for the same fate. Abandoned for fifteen years, it was finally bought by the Jacques Bogart group. Initially very discreet, the phoenix gradually regained its former plumage with the arrival in 1997 of French designer Nicolas Ghesquière, who began with the ready-to-wear line “Le Dix”, a reference to the Parisian address, and very quickly took over the entire creation. He revisits the models of Cristóbal Balenciaga, while modernizing and adapting them to the 21st century. As the brand comes under the direction of the Gucci/PPR Group, the artistic director launches the shoe, men’s ready-to-wear and bag lines. The famous “The First” model in supple leather with aged brass studs will be seen worn on the arms of the people, so it is instantly relayed as it bag, followed by two other models, the “Giant” and the “City”. After having awakened the brand from its deep sleep, Nicolas Ghesquière went into perfumery. The House had already released some delicious essences, including the famous Dix, a reference from Cristóbal’s time, but Nicolas Ghesquière breathes a wind of modernity into the flagrances. First Balenciaga Paris with notes of violet, delicately carried by its muse Charlotte Gainsbourg, and then Florabotanica, a veritable secret garden presented by Kristen Stewart aka Bella Swan in Twilight. When he leaves the House in 2012, his successor Alexander Wang continues the lineage for three years, before being replaced by the eccentric Demna Gvasalia. A wind of madness then hits the House!

Demna Gvasalia revisits Cristóbal Balenciaga

Everything is transformed: the wardrobe, the atmosphere of the fashion shows, the muses! If the founding principles of geometric lines, special fabrics or silhouettes are kept, their interpretation is now contemporary, even eccentric. Raised collars, exaggerated volumes, flashy colors and logomania at its peak, this is the new trend at Balenciaga. With audacity and creativity, Demna Gvasalia revisits the most innocuous clothes and accessories to play with her audience. Raised fangs, IKEA tote bags or old athletic shoes proudly called Triple S, the list is long.

Created more than a century ago, Balenciaga has revolutionized Parisian fashion with its surrealist forms and unique materials. One hundred years later, the House is just as avant-garde, launching the Ugly-beautiful and undeniably imposing itself in streetwear.

“A good couturier must be: architect for the plans, sculptor for the form, painter for the color, musician for the harmony and philosopher for the measure” Cristóbal Balenciaga