A seamstress’s son who was born in a fishing village, Cristobal Balenciaga rose to become the designer’s designer, admired by many of his peers, including Coco Chanel. When we look back at his life and career, we see someone who had no formal training as a fashion designer, yet came to dominate the scene of fashion with his precise and impeccable skills. He was a consummate professional and a total perfectionist, whose life was dedicated to creating beautiful fashion. Private, introverted and, austere, Balenciaga dedicated most of his working hours to perfecting and simplifying his cut and line. Like Madame Vionnet, he didn’t sketch and always began with the cloth. It was this dedication to tailoring that earned the admiration of other designers, such as Hubert de Givenchy, Christian Dior, André Courrèges among many others.
Balenciaga was born in a small fishing village of Getaria to a father who was a ferryboat captain, and a seamstress mother. He was also an altar boy growing up, and it is said that his mother’s profession had an influence on his future as a fashion designer. When he was still living with his parents, he started to sew for others, and his first wealthy client, Marquessa de Casa Torres, was the one to support him financially enabling him to leave grammar school and move to Madrid to study tailoring.
Balenciaga has caught the eye of not only his wealthy clientele but of the fashion world when he first came to Paris in 1937 to open his boutique. Before Paris, he was already an established designer in his hometown but had to close his store in San Sebastian, when the Spanish War started. In Paris, he found immediate success but also recognition from his peers, who praised his sophisticated style that respected proportion and was precise. He was a designer’s designer and a complete perfectionist. He had a clear understanding of who his ideal customer was and will cherry-pick his clients. He also nurtured young designers at the time, such as Hubert de Givenchy, who will become his protégé, as well as Emmanuel Ungaro and André Courrèges. His entrepreneurial skill laid in his unique visual style that respected form and fabric and created a silhouette that was undeniably his.
Balloon dress by Balenciaga. Photo source: Archives Balenciaga
Key Success Factors:
Balenciaga was a complete perfectionist who obsessed over every detail. He did not design to gain the admiration of others or meet financial figures. He was interested in creating fashion, a vision that he could truly believe and be proud of. All of his collections were a work in progress, and he would keep exploring and experimenting with different fabrics, most of which he cut himself by hand. It was in 1952 that he created his own signature “semi-fitted look”: tailored at the front, but full and billowing at the back. This particular look will lead to the Baby Doll and mini skirts of Courrèges and Mary Quant as well as the space-age fantasies of Pierre Cardin. At the height of his powers in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Balenciaga dressed every woman of style from the Duchess of Windsor to Marella Agnelli, and it was Cecil Beaton who claimed Balenciaga had “created the future of fashion.”
Dress with the semi-fitted look.
Photo credit: Archives Balenciaga