BUILDING ONTO THE FOUNDATIONS OF CRISTÓBAL BALENCIAGA’S AVANT-GARDE VISION, THE FRENCH FASHION HOUSE HAS MAINTAINED ITS ACCLAIMED ULTRA-MODERN FEMININE LOOK BY THE MEANS OF FAMED HEAD DESIGNER NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE, AS WELL AS CURRENT CREATIVE DIRECTOR ALEXANDER WANG. TO THIS DAY THE NAME BALENCIAGA STANDS FOR DEFINING THE WOMAN OF TOMORROW.
Since his appointment in 2012, Alexander Wang has brought an urban approach to Balenciaga’s couture codes. His incorporation of innovative technical materials, exquisite clean tailoring, as well as the brand’s trademark artisanal embellishments has gained much critical acclaim. Wang explains that he is exploring how Balenciaga himself “took the avant-garde and made it everyday”.
A NOBLE ESTABLISHMENT
Balenciaga is a French fashion house founded in 1918 by namesake Cristóbal Balenciaga, from the Basque Country, Spain. At the tender age of 12 he started his training in sewing, pattern making, and design by following his seamstress mother to her appointments at the homes of the Spanish nobility. At the age of 24, he opened his first boutique in San Sebastián, where his primarily aristocratic client list included the Spanish royal family. As the Spanish Civil War brought the monarchy, as well as infrastructure to a crumble, Balenciaga was forced to close his business. Shortly thereafter he relocated it to Paris, where he became known for dramatic black dresses and coats, reminiscent of Spanish fashions of the Elizabethan age. To this day the boutique at 10 Avenue George V operates as the Paris headquarters.
A NEW SILHOUETTE FOR WOMEN
Balenciaga always stood for clothing that avoided impeding the body, no matter how grand the design. Women not only looked but also felt good in his clothes. By the mid-1950s many of his designs could be slipped on and off over the head, thanks to his constant simplifying and improvement of cut. He mastered the art of blending modernity with elegance and comfort with extravagance.
Excellent tailoring was always imperative to the house. In the 1950’s Balenciaga presented scooped necklines with stand-up collars, shortened "bracelet" sleeves, and voluminous silhouettes, all of which fitted the body with supreme ease. By broadening the shoulders and diverging from the pinched waist made popular by Dior’s “New Look”, Cristóbal radically altered the female silhouette of the time. He created semi-fitted pieces such as the cocoon coat (1957) and the sack dress (1957) – shapes so timeless, we still see on the runway today.
Balenciaga was an innovator, not only in terms of silhouette, but also in his fabric choices. He preferred heavy fabrics for his sculptural cuts, working largely with deep black, but also with bright solid colour. He rarely used printed fabrics, preferring to embellish and embroider.
THE MASTER OF US ALL
Cristóbal Balenciaga had a reputation for doing things his own way, not only in terms of design. Decidedly resisting the rigid rules and bourgeoisie status of the Chambre Syndicale de Haute Couture and, thus, never becoming a member, Balenciaga couture was never officially Haute Couture – although he was always spoken of with immense reverence: Christian Dior famously referred to Balenciaga as “the master of us all” and Coco Chanel stated he was the only “couturier in the truest sense of the word… The others are simply fashion designers.” (Irvine). Yet he was not only prodigiously talented, but also a fashion visionary. As Vogue put it in 1962: “Almost since the first day (…) he has been acclaimed as the great leader in fashion; what Balenciaga does today, other designers will do tomorrow, or next year, by which time he will have moved on again.”
After several decades of dressing society’s most prominent women such as Jackie Kennedy, Queen Fabiola of Belgium, the Duchess of Windsor, and Princess Grace of Monaco, the house finally closed its doors in 1968. Balenciaga himself passed away only 4 years later. The brand would lay dormant until the 1980’s.
In the late 1980’s, Jacques Bogart S.A. acquires the rights to the Balenciaga brand and re-launches it as a ready-to-wear line - to mixed reviews. Over a decade later Dutch designer Josephus Thimister finally restores Balenciaga to its luxury status, but not until Nicolas Ghesquière is promoted to head designer does the brand really shoot back into the spotlight. Kering (formerly PPR) acquires the brand and partners with Ghesquière. Production and commercial capabilities are modernized and new product categories, such as bags, shoes, and men’s wear, added to the widening ready-to-wear line. This allows the Balenciaga brand a huge growth spurt to become one of the biggest players in the fashion industry worldwide.
HERITAGE VS. ACCESSIBILITY
During his 15 years at the helm of Balenciaga, Ghesquière presented collections of intricate grandeur, continuing the “Balenciaga tradition of making exquisite clothes aimed rather narrowly at a fashion elite” (The Guardian). This design process didn’t translate well to a broader audience, causing some frustration within Kering who aspired for more commercial success. The one item highly coveted by the mainstream fashion world was the Lariat bag, whose successors, the City and Giant bags, are the most famous Balenciaga pieces of today.
In 2012 Alexander Wang succeeded Ghesquière as Creative Director – an appointment met with some scepticism. Wang’s sport and street wear-inspired style seemed an all-too casual fit for a brand rooted deeply in couture heritage. However, the young designer has embarked on a mission to “retell the story of Balenciaga so that it strikes a chord with a broader audience” – so far with great success. Throughout the four seasons since his appointment Wang has continued to impress the critics by pushing the boundaries of couture research. With cool precision and dynamic new materials, teamed with a subtle referencing of archive pieces and couture handcraft, Wang has presented a lean, urban, and updated Balenciaga – yet again dressing the woman of tomorrow.
Balenciaga is a house where silhouette has always ruled over adornment. With its signature rounded shoulders, semi-fitted dresses and jackets, and atypical use of volume, Balenciaga became known for its avant-garde shapes and ultra-modern interpretation of the feminine silhouette. Today one of the brands most iconic items is the motorcycle-inspired Lariat bag (successors include the City and Giant bags).
Known in his day as the most expensive couturier in Paris, the level to which Cristóbal Balenciaga was revered is unparalleled. For many, attending his shows was comparable to a religious experience. Other Greats like Coco Chanel and Dior even referred to him as the “Master” or “Maestro”. “The names of Chanel and Dior may pack more punch in modern popular culture, but the cognoscenti revere the legacy of Balenciaga above all others.” (The Guardian)
The Spanish Civil War causes the monarchy to crumble. The majority of his clients having been members of the aristocracy, Balenciaga is driven to relocate his business to Paris.
Balenciaga opens his first Parisian boutique on prestigious Avenue George V.
During the World War II Balenciaga manages to maintain his couture clientele despite the safety risk posed by travelling
Balenciaga is finally able to show his full potential after the war. Diverging from the typical hourglass figure by broadening the shoulders and adding volume at the waist he redefined the feminine silhouette of the time. He presented semi-fitted garments such as the square coat, cocoon coat, and sack dress.
A-list clients included Queen Fabiola of Belgium, for whom he designed a wedding dress made of ivory duchess satin with mink trims, and ultimate style icon Jackie Kennedy.
Supported by his most noted protégé, Hubert de Givenchy, Balenciaga causes conflict with the press by scheduling to show his collection a mere day before the clothing retail delivery date. Within a year both eventually decide to revert back to the customary showing 4-weeks in advance.
To much dismay, Balenciaga announces he is closing the house for good in 1968. His clients are more than devastated.
Cristóbal Balenciaga passes away in Xàbia, Spain, aged 77. Yet he continues to have a lasting impact on the fashion world through his much-celebrated protégés, such as Oscar de la Renta, Emanuel Ungaro, and Hubert de Givenchy.
Jacques Bogart S.A. acquires the rights to the Balenciaga brand and reopens it as a prêt-à-porter line. Reviews of head designer Michel Goma’s creations are mixed.
Dutch designer Josephus Thimister restores Balenciaga to its luxury status. Balenciaga designs the French teams clothes for the summer Olympic Games.
Nicolas Ghesquière is promoted to head designer, finally putting the brand back into the spotlight.
Kering acquires Balenciaga. Ghesquière designs the iconic motorcycle-inspired ‘Lariat’ bag, which remains one of Balenciaga’s most covetable items. The first 25 pieces are given to models and celebrity friends such as Kate Moss, Sienna Miller, Chloë Sevigny, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Carine Roitfeld.
Ghesquière is put under pressure by Kering to make Balenciaga profitable by 2007 or else face replacement.
The very positively received F/W 2005 collection proves that Balenciaga has the potential to be commercially successful,
supported by a strong celebrity fan base including Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.
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