The French believe that they made Cristóbal Balenciaga’s career, but his biographer Mary Blume doesn’t buy it.
“He was 41 when he came to France, and he was already extremely successful,” says Blume, who has written “The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). “He came to Paris because of the [Spanish] Civil War.”
Balenciaga was a mysterious man who avoided journalists like the plague, and did only one interview in his life, after his retirement. He would not have wanted it known that one of his business associates was his longtime lover, Wladzio Jaworowski d’Attainville. When asked to characterize Balenciaga’s contribution to fashion, Blume says it was “simply to raise the level of aspiration.”
In fact, for a certain kind of woman at a certain time, there was no substitute for Balenciaga. Bunny Mellon bought copiously from him, and he even made her gardening clothes; Mona von Bismarck, according to Diana Vreeland, didn’t leave her bedroom for three days when he retired. At that time, Mellon wanted to begin patronizing a different designer, but since Balenciaga recommended Hubert de Givenchy, she went to him. One advantage Balenciaga had as a designer was that his sculptural shapes were forgiving for less-than-perfect figures.
“I was fascinated to learn that he really liked to work on rather fat bodies,” Blume says.
In Blume’s book, there is a photo of Balenciaga fitting fabric magnate Gustav Zumsteg’s wife, Hulda, “who must have weighed about 200 pounds.” The book also include photos of Balenciaga’s greatest innovations: the twin-seamed sleeve, the melon sleeve, the sack dress, the baby-doll dress, the dress with a short-in-front, long-in-back hemline, the balloon dress and the wedding dress with a coal-scuttle headdress.
“He was a strange duck,” the author continues. John Fairchild, a contributing editor to WWD, was one of Blume’s sources, who, she says, was “very generous” with her. As a young man, Fairchild was head of the Paris bureau of WWD, and, in that capacity, he virtually stalked Balenciaga, positioning photographers at the newsstand where he bought his paper each morning and having artists peek into his curtained atelier to try to draw the designs taking shape. WWD often accused Hubert de Givenchy, a protégé, of being too influenced by the designer. Balenciaga’s top vendeuse, Florette Chelot, who lived to be 95 and is referred to by her first name in the book, was another major source.
The difficulty, of course, was in tracking down possible sources before it was too late, since Balenciaga retired in 1968. As a teenager, Karl Lagerfeld saw an Irving Penn photo in Vogue of Lisa Fonssagrives in Balenciaga. It was the first time he had ever seen Vogue, and, Blume writes, realized then that “there could be a life for him in fashion.” Emanuel Ungaro was an assistant at Balenciaga, while André Courrèges met his wife, Coqueline, there, and his former boss helped back his fledgling fashion house.
Florette, a very outgoing woman, was popular at Balenciaga partly for that reason — although she sometimes got into trouble with Le Maître for not being serious enough. It was Florette who noted that Barbara Hutton always drank during her fittings from a glass of “water” — which was really gin. “She would call Florette at 4 o’clock in the morning,” Blume notes. Blume, who wrote about culture for the International Herald Tribune, has also published “Côte d’Azur: Inventing the French Riviera” and a collection of her pieces from the Herald Tribune, “A French Affair.”
“He was such a perfectionist,” she says of Balenciaga. “He was always ripping up sleeves. He was so incredibly watchful — he would be upset if he saw a woman in a restaurant in a Balenciaga with a button missing or the collar wrong.”
“Sometimes clients attended collections with their husbands or lovers and the atmosphere could be pure Feydeau,” Blume writes, “with someone like André Dubonnet skipping between past and present mistresses while prospecting for new ones.”