LONDON, United Kingdom — Gabrielle Chanel said: “He alone is a couturier in the truest sense of the word.” Madeleine Vionnet simply called him “un vrai” and Christian Dior described him as “the master of us all,” the conductor which every other couturier follows. Cecil Beaton called him “fashion’s Picasso.” Carmel Snow said he was the “connoisseur’s couturier” and chose to be buried in her favourite Balenciaga suit, while Diana Vreeland boldly hailed him as “the greatest dressmaker who ever lived.”
Cristóbal Balenciaga, it’s fair to say, made a huge impact on the world of fashion. According to Gloria Guinness, during the Second World War there were more Balenciaga dresses smuggled out of Europe than perfumes. Yet, largely due to the fact that Balenciaga closed his business in 1968 (“There is no one left for me to dress,” he said at the time) and because he was notoriously reticent, famously guarded and only ever gave one interview, the legacy of Cristóbal Balenciaga has escaped a generation — until now.
“If someone is under the age of 30, they associate it with handbags and shoes — and now Puffa jackets,” says Cassie Davies-Strodder, curator of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s major retrospective of the couturier’s work, which opens this month in London. The exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of the couture house Balenciaga first opened in San Sebastián, Spain, and the 80th anniversary of the venture he launched in Paris after a civil war led to the deposition of Spain’s King Alfonso XIII. “I mean once you start looking at the clothes, you see his influence everywhere, but he’s not such a household name as someone like Dior, who was already writing his own story before he died.” The V&A currently has the largest collection of Balenciaga in the United Kingdom, thanks in large part to Cecil Beaton, who persuaded his friends to donate couture pieces to the museum in the 1970s; the exhibition focuses on these as well as work by current Balenciaga designer Demna Gvasalia, as well as Nicolas Ghesquière, Phoebe Philo, Rei Kawakubo, Jonathan Anderson, André Courrèges, Paco Rabanne and Oscar de la Renta, to name a few.
Once you start looking at the clothes, you see his influence everywhere.
Davies-Strodder, however, is quick to add that often Balenciaga’s work is incomparable to even the best ready-to-wear in terms of fabrics, fit and technique. Cristóbal Balenciaga was, of course, a modernist who hated the modern world and strived for godly perfection in the microscopic nuances of dressmaking. His business was built on the premise that a lady changed her clothes three times a day, disdained the familiarity of inferiors, and travelled with several steamer trunks and a maid (the jet plane, as Hubert de Givenchy famously pointed out, dealt one of the blows that diminished the importance of haute couture). Balenciaga was also an ardent Spanish royalist and the contrariness of his style — austerity and pomp, extravagance and reserve, humility and intolerance — in many ways reflect the paradoxes of Catholicism, of which the designer was a devout follower.
Demna Gvasalia’s work for Balenciaga may seem to be worlds away. But the two designers have more in common than one may think.
Disrupting the Fashion System
First and foremost, Cristóbal Balenciaga and Demna Gvasalia are both disruptors of the fashion system. On one level, Balenciaga defied the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show his collections — with his close friend Givenchy — a month later than his peers, forcing buyers and journalists from New York to trudge back across the Atlantic, which they willingly did. But as a result, the renegades got exclusive coverage in every style column. This is much like Gvasalia, whose decision to show his label Vetements on the couture calendar has resulted in considerable media attention along with operational advantages. Gvasalia also keeps a cap on international stockists and what each can order to reduce the number of items that end up in clearance sales, making sure that that his own brand remains exclusive enough for customers to return. Similarly, Cristóbal Balenciaga kept a tight lid on the number of clients he would serve, many of whom were turned away upon initial interest. Even loyal clients would be required to order a minimum of two items, which helped to create a mysterious aura around the house and justify high prices.
Pioneers of "Street-Up" Fashion
For all the grandeur of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s couture, his connection to the street, for which Gvasalia is well known, is often overlooked. “People used to keep telling me that fashion came from the streets,” remarked Diana Vreeland, editor of American Vogue during the '60s, in 1973. “I didn’t go much for this street-up business, because it seemed to me that I’d always seen it at Balenciaga. Balenciaga, for instance, did the first vinyl raincoats, like the gendarmes wear in the winter in Paris. The cape and the boots and the short skirts and the elaborate stockings….”
Indeed, Balenciaga’s inventive daywear is often overlooked too in favour of his grander designs. During the Nazi Occupation in Paris, women took to bicycles in the absence of petrol and in response Balenciaga designed a cycling outfit of short skirt, blazer and red woolly stockings, as well as dresses with detachable long skirts so that they could double for day and evening.
Over half a century later, the said stockings and vinyl raincoats were key emblems in Gvasalia’s debut for the fashion house, transfigured into perpendicularly shouldered coats and jolting neon Spandex stocking-boots (notably in the pink and blue violets that sent Vreeland into hyperbolic overdrive). Gvasalia’s appropriation of streetwear, and even the inexpensive offerings of everyday items found in urban bric-a-brac stores, is often associated with the more recent street-up practice synonymous with Martin Margiela. The origin of the approach, however, can be traced much further back. “If you consider the way that Margiela thought about clothing and the way that Balenciaga thought about clothing, there’s a compatibility of the degree of philosophical contemplation that went into what they did,” says Tim Blanks, editor-at-large at BoF. “The thing with Cristóbal Balenciaga is he’s an endless resource for designers, but he’s an extremely demanding one. You need to have an incredible talent to be able to take that legacy on, which is why I think the French were so unhinged when Alexander Wang was there."
“I would see Demna as being equally thoughtful about what he does and doing it in a way that’s more relevant for now, incorporating elements that make it more relevant,” adds Blanks. “What Balenciaga did for his time was so extraordinary, what Margiela did for his time was so extraordinary, and what Demna is doing for his time is taking some of those ideas and extending them to a contemporary context.”
Under Gvasalia, striped laundry bags and cobalt, papery plastic bags all too familiar to Ikea shoppers have been transformed into premium leather Balenciaga holdalls; skiing cagoules made with a studied structure evocative of the collars that would stand away from the nape in order to elongate the neck, “allowing women and their pearls to breathe,” as Gloria Guinness once noted; and most recently, ordinary duffle and check coats given dramatic fastenings to create a sweeping, sari-like drape across the body, inspired by the posed mid-century house photography.
Would Cristóbal approve of Gvasalia’s witty take on his legacy? Perhaps, considering he once told the Marquesa de Llanzol: “I regret not being younger, because then I could create the amusing but tasteful ready-to-wear the times we live in demand. For me it’s too late.”
The Absolution of a Complete Wardrobe
Today, Balenciaga is a global brand with a slew of product categories and a global network boutiques. During the golden age of couture, Balenciaga was the most expensive dressmaker in Paris, with a maison at 10 Avenue George V that was almost impossible to get into. Famously guarded, Balenciaga’s couture house was no place for “curious women” (identification was required upon entry to the salons, and his trusted silver-haired vendeuses — all dressed in Spanish black — would often dismiss hopeful clients before they could even pass the threshold). Balenciaga famously said that “a woman of fashion cannot be elegant unless she patronises a single dressmaker,” and women were so enamoured by his clothes that they would actually surrender to his dictum. Diana Vreeland famously recalled the audience “going up in foam and thunder” at his shows, which could last up to three hours in monastic silence, and ignite spending frenzies. American heiress Barbara Hutton once ordered 19 dresses, six suits, three coats and a négligée from a single collection, while in 1963 Mona von Bismarck bought 88 outfits, following this with a total of 140 items over the next few years.
Bismarck famously had her gardening clothes made by Balenciaga, and was photographed wearing them by Cecil Beaton. When Demna Gvasalia sent hoodies, Puffa jackets, running shoes and baseball caps down the runway, fashion insiders were divided. Such items, after all, reflect the lowest tier of clothing: mere merchandise. However, what could be more in the spirit of Cristóbal Balenciaga than a baseball cap or running shoes for the devoted client? At the Autumn/Winter '17 menswear show, half of the models even had Balenciaga- and Kering-branded manicures. The look was an ostensible statement on the maddening lust for Balenciaga the brand, which certainly wouldn’t be lost on the connoisseur clients of yesteryear. The choice of items, however, came across as a self-aware nod to the modern, predominantly casual wardrobe, with just enough irony to entertain and entice a typical millennial consumer.
An Innate Sculptural Sensibility
“Whereas Dior’s dresses are most ingeniously and beautifully evolved from sketches, Balenciaga uses fabrics like a sculptor working with marble,” wrote Cecil Beaton in "The Glass of Fashion." In 1947, when Dior was cinching the waist and amplifying the calf-skimming skirt, Balenciaga sent out jackets and coats that were convex at the back and curved up in the front of the hip to the button fastening. The look became known as the “barrel line,” the forward-looking, unsung hero of the decade compared to Dior’s heraldic rose-tinted nostalgia for Belle Époque curves, which some critics argued set the women’s liberation movement back by a decade. Until then, Balenciaga’s clothes might have stood out for their architectural elegance, their black-trimmed graphic boldness and their dramatic Spanish influence, but in their overall silhouette they conformed to the fashions of the day. From 1947, Balenciaga began to revolutionise the silhouette and experiment with proportion and volume that would lead to two decades of his most experimental and modern work.
The sculptural sensibility informed generations of the most celebrated designers — there is not a single dressmaker who has been so influential to so many generations. Balenciaga’s focus on studied form is also echoed by Demna Gvasalia’s experimentation with shape and proportion, for which he often finds inspiration in the brand’s archive. “There’s a synergy between the way they both look at things in 360,” says Davies-Strodder. “They do a lot through cutting instead of styling, and the pieces which Demna has produced that sit off the shoulder are actually cut that way to look as though it’s been styled that way.” Lotta Volkova, the Russian stylist who is Gvasalia’s closest collaborator, told 032c last year that they are “trying to translate moods into shapes and silhouettes.”
“I never thought about clothes in this way until I met Demna,” she added. “He is really interested in making a jacket that represents an attitude. For example, a jacket that looks as if you just got off your motorcycle. Demna constructed the sleeves in a way so that they stay as bulky as your jacket is shaped while you are riding a chopper… It’s very sculptural.” It’s also very Cristóbal.
A Mutual Emphasis on Realism
Today, fashion plays on the notion that a dress can make a woman as unassailably elegant as the inhumanly perfect model who walks down the runway in it. Balenciaga, however, took the true measure of a woman’s sins — warts and all — and forgave by creating clothes that had a positively transformative power to turn even his predominantly middle-aged clientele into wonders of the world. In fact he was so confident in the metamorphic power of his clothes that he preferred models who were short-limbed and plump, like the women of his Spanish hometown. “M. Balenciaga likes a little stomach,” one of his vendeuses famously observed. His models were also often middle-aged (like his clients) and never pretty, and he personally instructed them never to make eye contact or pirouette or smile. As a result, they became known as “monsters.” The most terrifying was Colette, “with her Dracula walk, her big head low like a bull ready to charge, her shoulders hunched down, her arms swing[ing] low,” remembered fashion editor Bettina Ballard. The ideal was the piece of clothing itself, not the woman, and the result was a sense of realism that led women to trust in the couturier completely.
How does Gvasalia relate? Realism is the Georgian designer's forte and sits at the core of his methodology. What "real" people are wearing is what Gvasalia elevates with a renewed sense of proportion and energy, and often presents on "nodels" who are cast from the street, social media or from the designer’s own social circle. Today’s Balenciaga captures the sense of movement that was loved by its founder’s clients (legend has it that the first piece of clothing that Balenciaga ever made, at the age of six, was for his pet cat,which wouldn’t stay still), and there’s an enigmatic sexuality to its unexpected materials and figure-hugging shapes. During the '60s, sexuality defined itself by racy cut-outs, pieces of PVC and endless displays of leg. However Balenciaga’s clothes had a far more mysterious sexuality about them that sprang into being when they moved and wobbled a firework of ostrich feather, or that came from the way they turned women into hybrid forms: woman as plant, woman as insect, or woman as sea creature — a stark contrast to Dior’s woman as a flower. When Balenciaga presented the “sack” dress in the early '50s, there was public outcry and mockery. It was as sensational as Comme des Garcons’s “lumps and bumps” collection, distorting the body in a way that abstracted its femininity to the point of revulsion.
The Subtlty of Subversive Sexuality
Much has been made of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s faith. In 1967 and 1968 he made stark dresses with one seam, like the axis of an elm leaf, with modernist angels in mind. Once or twice a day the couturier would pray in the church on Avenue Marceau, and during the eulogy at his funeral in 1972 his confessor Father Robert Pieplu declared that “for him, clothes were supposed to reveal the deep harmony, beauty in its purest form, the reflection — beyond all distortions — of the Creator which everyone hides more or less in his inner self.” In other words, Balenciaga sought divinity in creating the perfect sleeve. Today, as the V&A’s Cassie Davies-Strodder points out, “people, especially designers, still revere his work so much that they come in to the see the collection and get on their knees to worship a sleeve.”
Blanks points out that “as a religious man, Balenciaga would have also appreciated the tang and appeal of sin.” Indeed, there was a subversive element to his penitent perfectionism and in 1967, the year of those saintly gowns, he also designed a black velvet evening gown similar in shape to the vestments chasuble or casulla with its curved hem, but split to a daring height. So high was the split that most of the clients who ordered it requested that it be lowered. “Balenciaga had a priest’s casulla in mind when he cut this,” wrote Claudia Heard de Osbourne, one of his most prolific clients who kept a suite at the Ritz just for her couture. “He said, ‘A very sexy priest.’”
This sense of subversive sexuality is not lost on Gvasalia, who has created form-fitting silhouettes that are offset by menacing proportions and tactile materials such as latex and Spandex (which was invented the same year as M. Balenciaga’s beloved silk gazar). Natalie Kingham, buying director at MatchesFashion.com, was one of the earliest adopters of the designer’s vision. She says that his Balenciaga tailoring (which is included in the V&A exhibition) flew off the shop floor and that the street-up holdalls have been popular with women who have a lot of things to carry around. “She’s the one that is fearless; the one that's very passionate about fashion and isn't afraid to jump in and try and use shapes,” she says of the brand’s customer.
Kingham, however, is most enthusiastic when she speaks about Gvasalia’s influence, which is in the same tone that Davies-Strodder talks of Cristóbal’s. “It's a historical moment and I think these whole last few years are going to be shaped and defined by what he [Gvasalia] has done,” she concurs. “I can see the influence everywhere and that's another thing that's quite exciting — when you start seeing it filter down everywhere.”
As much as Gvasalia’s influence can be felt among a younger generation of designers, it’s clear he is still in awe of his predecessor. He closed the most recent Balenciaga show with nine couture gowns, including a column of ivory, upwardly-turned feathers, a strapless black sheath wrapped in a giant ribbon, and floating tiers of raspberry satin that are exact replicas of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s masterpieces. That they were hardly updated was about more than just a big anniversary. As Gvasalia put it: “It looks best just the way it is.”
'Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion' opens at the Victoria & Albert museum in South Kensington, London on 27 May 2017.