The History of Balenciaga
Cristobal Balenciaga, the founder of Balenciaga house, was born in 1895 in Getaria. Revolutionising fashion in the 1950’s – the golden age of couture – his impact is still visible today. Balenciaga was known as the best Couturier of all times, referred by Christian Dior as “the master of us all” and by Coco Chanel as “the only couturier in the truest sense of the word. The others are simply fashion designers”. I will dive deeper, to understand how Balenciaga earned his name, how his Maison evolved over time and still is one of the most respected high fashion brands.
Early life in Spain
Cristobal was a son of a fisherman and seamstress. His father died when Balenciaga was young, so he often helped his mother by work. At the age of 12 Cristobal started his apprenticeship by a local tailor, thanks to recommendation from Marchioness de Casa Torres, who was a noble woman from his town.
The story says that Balenciaga saw Marchioness on the street and complimented the Drecoll tailleur she was wearing. In response she challenged him to recreate it and little to say Cristobal did it incredibly well.
The history of Balenciaga as a fashion brand started in 1919 when he opened his first dressmaking establishment in San Sebastian, then expanding to Madrid and Barcelona. Back then his shops were called Eisa, which is an abbreviation from his mother’s name Eisaguirre. Most of the Spanish aristocracy dressed in his clothes.
It is important to remember that Balenciaga didn’t attend fashion university – as there was no such a thing in this time. He learned all of his skills by practice, he didn’t sketch and always began with shaping the cloth by hand, on the mannequin.
Balenciaga had unfortunate history, due to the Civil war in Spain he was forced to leave his country and moved to Paris, where he opened his shop in 1937. Balenciaga was successful since his first collection in France and earned wide recognition, especially within the noble class.
In the 1950’s his designs were contrary to the “New Look” of Christian Dior. During the 50’s and 60’s most incredible and trailblazing designs of Balenciaga saw the daylight and changed perception of fashion. In 1960 he made the wedding dress for Fabiola de Mora y Aragón when she married King Baudouin I of Belgium, which she later donated to the Cristóbal Balenciaga Foundation.
Characteristics of Cristobal Balenciaga designs and inspirations
Focus on volume, contrast and symmetry are the most important characteristics of Balenciaga designs. If we look at the designs and silhouettes of Cristobal garments, we can clearly see how influenced he was by Spanish culture. It was most noticeable at his collections created in Paris, which isn’t surprising as he probably felt homesick.
His first collection in Paris in 1937 featured references to the Spanish renaissance. Characteristic elements of his country such as the Bolero lace and the contrast between red and black always remained in his collections. His clothes were luminous, featuring sleek, linear lines that were freeing a body, in contrast to the hourglass silhouette of Christian Dior “New Look”.
Balenciaga shifted focus of garments from waist to the shoulders, which is considered as his biggest contribution to the world of fashion – a new silhouette for women. He preferred heavy fabrics, bold materials and embroidery, meanwhile his colour palette consisted mainly of whites, all black, or black clashing with red.
In his own words: “A good couturier should be: an architect for patterns, sculptor for form, painter for drawings, musician for harmony, and philosopher for measure.” But talking about Balenciaga one can’t omit how Spanish paintings influenced his workflow.
How Spanish Paintings shaped Balenciaga
Bright colors seen in some of Balenciaga designs are probably inspired by pictures of Spanish painter – El Greco.
Diego Velázquez propably inspired the shape of Balenciaga clothing, which is most visible on Infanta dress designed by him in 1939.
After fabric restrictions during 2WW Balenciaga designs were all about volume. In this regard he found inspiration once again in art, this time paintings of Francisco de Zurbarán.
Spanish court paintings of the 16 and 17 century focused on black colour, which was the most used colour in Balenciaga garments.
When it comes to choice of fabric, paintings of Francisco de Goya have to be highlighted.
If you want to read more profound informations of spanish painting inflounce on Balenciaga I encourage you to read this article
The history of Balenciaga – Signature looks
The 1950’s and 60’s were, when it comes to couture, a clash between Christian Dior’s “New look” and Balenciaga’s voluminous designs. Latter introduced semi-cut and barrel line to fashion.
Starting in 1939 with inflanta dress that was inspired by the paintings of Diego Velázquez, which I mentioned above. It is also homage to traditional Spanish style and culture.
The Sack Dress is opposite to the hourglass silhouette. Oval shape with dropped waistline features very few seams, which lets fabric flow naturally from the shoulders.
Balloon jacket introduced in 1953 is my favourite piece of Balenciaga. Elegant wide shape with full sleeves and body creates an eye-catching cloud alike silhouette. Since it’s release it became one of the most signature looks of the house.
The Tulip Dress – Balenciaga was so respected by the fashion community, that some fabric makers created materials solely for him. One of these materials was silk gazar, which enabled Balenciaga to create structural shapes, without using side seams. That allowed him to design the Tulip Dress, with a kimono style back.
The Egg Coat – As we could already see Balenciaga was a big fan of volume. This coat totally got rid of the waistline, focusing on soft lines that create egg shape, from which it’s name comes from.
Balenciaga in the 70’s
Interesting fact about Balenciaga is that, although he was referred to as the best coutiere his house was never official haute couture. Cristobal refused to follow the rules of the Chambre syndicale de Parisienne – which required showing collections 4 weeks before shipping – and presented his collection one day before their original launch. Doing so in order to avoid being copied.
He also taught many excellent couriers like Oscar de la Renta, or Hubert de Givenchy.
In 1968 Balenciaga showed his last collection and retired. When he passed away in 1972 at the age of 77. Women Wear Daily said on this day that “The king is dead”.
The return of Balenciaga
In 1986 Jacques Bogart SA acquired the rights to Balenciaga. If you are not familiar with this company it might be because they didn’t focus on making clothes. Jacques Bogart SA manufactures and distributes cosmetics, skin care and perfume. So if you are asking yourself now, why were they even interested in buying Balenciaga we have to go back to 1947.
It was the year when the iconic Balenciaga fragrance called Le-Dix was launched. So when Balenciaga finally came back it focused mainly on perfumes, not clothes. However, in 1987 the first ready to wear line of the house was designed by Michel Goma and the name of this collection was Le-Dix, the same as the name of perfume.
Designers and their contribution
The history of Balenciaga was revived In 1987 when Michel Goma was hired to create the first ready to wear collection of the house. It was however such a big shift from what Balenciaga was before – a Mansion producing only couture garments – that people criticised Goma’s work saying, it doesn’t feel like Balenciaga anymore. In 1992 after failing to bring Balenciaga back to the spotlight he was replaced by Josephus Thimister.
Before joining Balenciaga in 1992 Josephus Thimister graduated from Royal Academy of Arts in Antwerp and was assistant to Karl Lagerferd. His first collection for Balenciaga revolved around black and white hues, focusing on structure of the garment.
During his time Balenciaga was once again in the public eye, thanks to following codes of the house, adjusting them for modern customers. He was fired in 1997 for playing rock music for the runway so loud that guests started to leave. It is also worth noting that Balenciaga designed French team clothes for the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992.
Nicolas Ghesquière was assistant to Josephus Thimister during his time at Balenciaga. He is credited for reviving house of Balenciaga. His signature items are low cut cigarette pants, neoprene dresses, robot-esque leggings, floral prints in Spring/Summer 2008. In addition to that he created Maison’s “it” bag : City Bag in many versions and gladiator boots. Due to a tense atmosphere at the company and lack of support from the Kering group, Nicolas Ghesquière left house in 2012, after being its director for 15 years.
At Balenciaga, Wang paid tribute to Cristobal’s mid-century shapes without sacrificing his own edgy flourish. He created cocoon coats, peplum jackets, bubble skirts, and stand-up collars, but with mesh, exposed zipper, staple, and neon yellow accents. Alexander left Balenciaga in 2015, after 6 collections in order to focus on his own label
Prior to working at Balenciaga since 2015, Demna collected experience in fashion design for quite a few years. He graduated from Royal Academy of Arts in 2006 and started working with Walter Van Beirendonck, then for Maison Margiela. He also helped to design womenswear collections at Louis Vuitton under Nicolas Ghesquière, who previously was creating director for Balenciaga.
His inspirations come from streetwear and watching how ordinary people dress. At the beginning the fashion community was sceptical about how he will adjust to design for a house with such a long tradition and sophistication. However he grasped the spirit of the house flawlessly . Similar to Cristobal’s design his garments are voluminous, play with natural silhouette and accentuate shoulders instead of the waist. We can often see oversized clothes in his collections.
The most known and sought after items of the Demna Gvasalia period are shoes and bags. Balenciaga foam runners and triple S sneakers are one of the best selling pieces since their launch in 2017. Not to mention a new iteration of motorcycle bags. Demna perfectly understands the needs of current clients of Balenciaga.
In 2021 Demna presented first Houte Couture collection of the house since 1967