Cristóbal Balenciaga opened his first boutique in San Sebastián, Spain in 1919, which expanded to include branches in Madrid and Barcelona. The Spanish royal family and the aristocracy wore his designs, but when the Spanish Civil War forced him to close his stores, Balenciaga moved to Paris.
Balenciaga opened his Paris couture house on Avenue George V in August 1937, and his first runway show featured designs heavily influenced by the Spanish Renaissance. Balenciaga’s success in Paris was nearly immediate. Within two years, the French press lauded him as a revolutionary, and his designs were highly sought-after. Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar was an early champion of his designs.
Customers risked their safety to travel to Europe during World War II to see Balenciaga’s clothing. During this period, he was noted for his “square coat,” with sleeves cut in a single piece with the yoke, and for his designs with black (or black and brown) lace over bright pink fabric.
However, it was not until the post-war years that the full scale of the inventiveness of this highly original designer became evident. His lines became more linear and sleek, diverging from the hourglass shape popularized by Christian Dior’s “New Look”. The fluidity of his silhouettes enabled him to manipulate the relationship between his clothing and women’s bodies. In 1951, he totally transformed the silhouette, broadening the shoulders and removing the waist. In 1955, he designed the tunic dress, which later developed into the chemise dress of 1958. Other contributions in the postwar era included the spherical balloon jacket (1953), the high-waisted baby doll dress (1957), the cocoon coat (1957), the balloon skirt (1957), and the sack dress (1957). In 1959, his work culminated in the Empire line, with high-waisted dresses and coats cut like kimonos. His manipulation of the waist, in particular, contributed to “what is considered to be his most important contribution to the world of fashion: a new silhouette for women.”
In the 1960s, Balenciaga was an innovator in his use of fabrics: he tended toward heavy fabrics, intricate embroidery, and bold materials. His trademarks included “collars that stood away from the collarbone to give a swanlike appearance” and shortened “bracelet” sleeves. His often spare, sculptural creations—including funnel-shape gowns of stiff duchess satin worn to acclaim by clients such as Pauline de Rothschild, Bunny Mellon, Marella Agnelli, Hope Portocarrero, Gloria Guinness, and Mona von Bismarck—were considered masterworks of haute couture in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1960, he designed the wedding dress for Queen Fabiola of Belgium made of ivory duchess satin trimmed with white mink at the collar and the hips. Jackie Kennedy famously upset John F. Kennedy for buying Balenciaga’s expensive creations while he was President because he feared that the American public might think the purchases too lavish. Her haute couture bills were eventually discreetly paid by her father-in-law, Joseph Kennedy.
Several designers who worked for Balenciaga would go on to open their own successful couture houses, notably Oscar de la Renta (1949), Andre Courreges (1950), Emanuel Ungaro (1958), but his most famous and noted protégé was Hubert de Givenchy, who was the lone designer to side with Balenciaga against the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne and also the press over the scheduling of his shows.
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