Cristóbal Balenciaga, January 1, 1927.

From refusing to assist in customer fittings to hiding his collections from the press, “the master” was often called mysterious.

“The most simple facts about Balenciaga intrigue every one in the fashion business,” said John B. Fairchild of couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga in 1958. And this was largely due to the “nyet” publicity policy of the design house. From refusing to assist in customer fittings to hiding his collections from the press, “the master” was often called mysterious. Even those relatively close to him — like Carmel Snow and Marie-Louise Bousquet, both of whom claimed to have seen his exact birthdate on his Spanish passport — argued about his age (his birthday was January 21, 1895).

 

John Fairchild, however, was able to get the scoop. In a two-and-a-half page feature in July of 1958, called “Balenciaga — and the Art of Making Elegant Clothes,” Fairchild covered everything from the inner workings of the maison Balenciaga to the Parisian restaurants frequented by the designer. According to him, Balenciaga’s business could have been as big as couture giant Dior at the time…had he wished it. He only had 400 employees — compared with the 1,000 at Dior — and kept it that way on purpose. And Balenciaga regularly refused orders to control the quality of his models. “The role of a couturier is to make wonderful elegant dresses,” Balenciaga said. “Each part of a model must enhance the over-all proportion.”

 

The little time he spent in Paris was at his Avenue Marceau apartment which — in contrast to his Modernist taste in clothing design — was decorated in an 18th-century “Haute Epoque” style. Balenciaga frequented simple restaurants like the left bank bistro “Chez Allard,” where he often ordered “poulet a la crème.” When he wasn’t in Paris, he could occasionally be found at “Reinerie,” his Louis XV chateau near Orleans, in Spain near San Sebastian or resort-hopping in Switzerland — St. Moritz, Davos and Arosa — where he liked to relax.

 

And it’s relaxation he needed. According to one of his staffers, he was “such a perfectionist, it made him nervous.” Indeed, Bianca Gilchrist, a close friend, told Mr. Fairchild, “When he sees me in his coat, he takes it off my back and starts working on it again.” But Fairchild assured WWD’s readers that “Balenciaga doesn’t think of himself as a genius or a great Spanish general.” However, because of his talent (he was one of a handful of couturiers who could actually sketch his own ideas) and attention to detail, he was both a genius and general to some.


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