In fashion, there have only ever been a handful of greats. Countless labels have come and gone from the fashion week calendar, but there are some names with an undying influence that continues to ripple through the industry. Cristóbal Balenciaga was most definitely one of them, and this May the storied Victoria & Albert Museum in London will open a blockbuster exhibit entitled Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, that examines his work and legacy.
If French fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet was about revealing the body in its truest form, Balenciaga was focused on honoring its foundations while reshaping it in his own vision. He was a true architect of the body who developed fabrics, like the silk gazar created for him by the illustrious Swiss textile firm Abraham, that could complement the volumes and sculptural shapes he desired while celebrating the woman beneath.
Cristóbal's drive was legendary with no detail too small to escape his eagle-eyed attention. For just one example, he spent the better part of his life trying to make the perfect sleeve, developing countless iterations to achieve his desired effect. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Balenciaga was a true craftsman who could make every garment from the ground up himself, going so far as to make one sublime black dress entirely on his own for every show--without ever divulging which one it was.
Phenomenal technical feats never ceased coming out of his atelier (coats with only one seam made from one piece of cloth, gravity-defying infanta gowns inspired by his Spanish heritage) and were, astonishingly, the norm. In 1968 when Balenciaga felt he no longer connected with the people of the day, he quietly shuttered his house at the age of 74 and died only a few years later.
The house of Balenciaga, once considered the greatest in Paris, languished for years with a headquarters that fell into such disrepair; a flooded basement ruined dozens of priceless couture pieces. It was eventually revived to great enthusiasm, but Cristóbal’s singular mystique never diminished and even after numerous entities designing under his name have moved on, his religious devotion to excellence remains a true, unblemished beacon in fashion.
Written by Martin Lerma