Imagine a dress so beautiful that you still pine for it more than 50 years later.
Danielle Slavik, a house model for Cristóbal Balenciaga from 1964 until 1968, when the Spanish couturier hung up his scissors for good, fell hard for a long-sleeved, black velvet number from the winter 1966 haute couture collection that was purchased by Grace Kelly, and worn at her 40th birthday party in Monaco.
“It was my favorite dress of my entire modeling career,” said Slavik, a fine-boned Parisian of Czech descent who would go on to work for 20 more years, for Chanel, Madame Grès and Hubert de Givenchy, an admirer and acolyte of Balenciaga.
Balenciaga’s current creative director Demna coaxed Slavik out of retirement for his second couture collection, paraded Wednesday at 10 Avenue George V — and as a thank you, he gifted her a replica of that 1966 dress.
Demna learned about Slavik during his collection research, and had his heritage department track her down. She was initially reluctant to return to the runway.
“I said, ‘No, it’s not possible — I’m too old. I can’t show my arms; I can’t show my legs,'” she recalled in an interview at Balenciaga headquarters, for which she came dressed in a loose blue sweater and slacks. “But he insisted, and I understood that it was to pay homage to Mr. Balenciaga, so I accepted that, despite my anguish.”
Slavik said she fell into modeling by chance when she accompanied a friend to a casting call advertised in a French newspaper, and was hired on the spot. The pay was modest — she recalls asking for 1,500 francs a month — and the hours long, from morning to evening, with daily fashion shows at 3:30 p.m. that lasted two hours.
But she said it was “love at first sight” when she encountered the designer Christian Dior dubbed “the master of us all.”
“He was a very benevolent, very generous man,” Slavik enthused about Cristóbal Balenciaga. “I almost want to cry every time I talk about him.”
In those days, house models were engaged for six-month periods, after which you could be fired “if you didn’t inspire the couturier any more,” she explained.
“It was extraordinary to be engaged at Balenciaga since he was the greatest couturier, the most esteemed, the most prestigious,” she said.
Slavik described fittings in revered terms, noting they were conducted in near silence. “I admired his perfectionism,” she said. “I really liked the cocktail dresses, which were very beautiful in lace, and then the evening dresses. But I also loved the suits and day dresses.”
Occasionally, house models would be gifted original couture samples if they didn’t sell by the end of the season. “In fact, there was hardly ever anything left from the collections,” she said. “I had a suit, two cocktail dresses and an evening dress, that’s it.”
With his dark nail varnish, facial scruff and wardrobe of rumpled, oversize tailoring and hoodies, Demna cuts a different figure from the founder, typically photographed in a white smock with a shirt and tie.
Yet Slavik said she “found the same benevolence, great generosity. There is something about [Demna] that I felt when I first met Monsieur Balenciaga. It moved me.”
“What touched me with Demna is the fact that he pays homage to Mr. Balenciaga. I think he has a lot of talent. I find the dresses beautiful,” she said. “At the time of Mr. Balenciaga, everyone loved him in the house. And when I met Demna’s team, it’s the same. They all tell me how lucky they are to work with him, how caring he is. And there is this atmosphere of admiration. They are all very close to him, finally very happy to work here.”
Slavik confessed to some nerves about the show, especially when she was told how brisk modern-day runway shows are, lasting a little over 10 minutes. “I’ll have to walk fast,” she said with a smile.