Pillow hats, sack dresses and baby-doll dresses are a few of his creations that considerably impacted the fashion world. Balenciaga’s vision and passion for couture still flow through the brand’s veins as their designers uphold the late designer’s push for innovation in fashion.
Called “Fashion’s Picasso” by British fashion photographer Cecil Beaton, he was one of the most prominent designers of the 1900s, and his artistry has influenced the fashion world for more than 100 years. A couturier from the age of 12, he mastered his talents by creating patterns, shapes, cuts and designs that hadn’t been seen in women’s fashion previously.
Balenciaga was born on Jan. 21, 1895 in Getaria, Spain. He was the youngest of five children to José Balenciaga Basurto, who died when Balenciaga was young, and Martina Eizaguirre Embil, a seamstress who taught sewing classes in her village. After working alongside his mother, he became an apprentice for a tailor in Gipuzkoa, Spain.
As a teenager, Balenciaga worked as a tailor at Les Grands Magasins du Louvre Parisian branch in the women’s clothing department. His early training in sewing set him apart from other courtiers.
In the late 1910s, Balenciaga became an established couturier in luxury commerce. He opened his first fashion house in San Sebastian, Spain, named Eisa (his mother’s shortened name). After becoming a well-known tailor at his first salon, he later opened up fashion houses in Barcelona and Madrid. But due to the Spanish Civil War, he was forced to close his doors and move his talents and stores to Paris.
Building the Fashion House
Balenciaga opened his couturier on Avenue George V in Paris in 1937. His collections consistently referred to his culture, including Spanish art and styles, catching the eyes of many.
After World War ll, Balenciaga’s talents were increasingly recognized. His originality allowed him to go from popular hour-glass figured women silhouettes to constructing women’s wear that was more suitable for all women’s bodies.
In the 1950s, the couturier updated the modern silhouette when he added a broad shoulder structure along with a dropped waistline. The design fit the wearer in a more freeform way, contrasting Christian Dior’s “New Look” silhouette, which included a nipped waistline.
He continued to push to transform women’s fashion in the 60s, including through his use of different fabrics, including bold, heavy materials. His designs gained global attention as he modeled his designs on celebrity clients such as American socialite Babe Paley, horticulturist Bunny Mellon, designer Pauline de Rothschild, actress Ava Gardener, fashion icon Gloria Guinness and philanthropist Mona von Bismarck. Jackie Kennedy was also known to wear Balenciaga’s designs. In 1960, he created a wedding gown for nurse and writer Fabiola de Mora y Aragón when she married the King of Belgium.
As hats became a popular addition in the 60s and clients wanted to match their hats with their outfits, Balenciaga worked with hat designers in Paris, Wladzio d’Attainville and Ramón Esparza. Balenciaga became known for his couture pillbox hats, which were especially popular in the ’60s.
In April 1962, Vogue said of Balenciaga’s effect on women’s fashion that “Whatever it takes to hold vast numbers of women in the palm of your hand year after year, Balenciaga has it.…Not that his clothes are easy to wear; on the contrary, they could hardly be more demanding — of elegance, wit, of real clothes authority.”
In 1968, Balenciaga decided to close his fashion house at the age of 74. He had worked in Paris for more than 30 years and was ready to retire. He closed his stores in Paris, Barcelona and Madrid.
When Balenciaga closed his doors, he believed that fashion was going in a different direction. Fashion houses Dior and Chanel had started to focus on ready-to-wear, which seemed to be where the fashion industry was headed. Balenciaga was purely devoted to couture.
Balenciaga died on Match 23, 1972, in Xàbia, Spain. On the day of his death, WWD ran the headline “The King Is Dead,” announcing the couturier’s death to the world. Two days later, the legendary designer was laid to rest in Getaria cemetery. French-American fashion columnist and editor Diana Vreeland said: “Balenciaga gave the world fashion. He was the beginning of everything, everything that is news — forever. Mention anything, raincoats, black stockings, the most luxurious fashions in the world — great fabrics…the color, the color, good God, the color. I used to have my secretary sit next to me at the collections and take down his marvelous combinations of color. He gave the world fashion. He gave the femmes du monde clothes,” per WWD.
The Balenciaga Brand Is Resurrected
In 1986, Jacques Bogart SA, a French holding company that manufactures and distributes cosmetics, skin care and perfume, acquired the rights to Balenciaga. Michel Goma designed its ready-to-wear offering from 1987 to 1992. Josephus Thimister then took over as designer until 1997.
Nicolas Ghesquière, now the creative director for Louis Vuitton, cut his teeth at the brand from 1997 until 2012. Gucci Group, part of PPR, which would later become Kering, acquired Balenciaga in 2001.
Ghesquière’s tenure saw the brand become a young celebrity favorite, especially in regards to its accessories. Early 2000s figures like Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan were frequently seen with its “It” bag, the Motorcycle Bag, which became synonymous with the Balenciaga name.
Ghesquière departed the house to replace Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton in November 2012. Alexander Wang took the reigns from December 2012 to October 2015.
In 2015, Demna Gvasalia was named creative director of Balenciaga. Gvasalia’s work for the brand has a similar ethos to that of the late courtier, with its passion for couture with a modern touch. In an interview, Gvasalia told WWD, “I would say couture is probably the coolest thing that fashion can have a conversation about today.” He continued, “Bringing couture into the modern context and communicating it to the current audience. A lot of people don’t even know that Balenciaga is a 100-plus-year-old couture brand. They think it’s a brand that started with the Triple S sneaker. So in a way, it’s kind of educational, but also putting in the spotlight what is the most important thing about fashion, and to me, couture is the purest expression of that.”
In July 2021, Balengiaca debuted high-fashion haute couture silhouettes for the first time in 53 years. In an exclusive interview with Balenciaga, Gvasalia told WWD that couture has a future of being a driving force in fashion again. “Couture represents freedom of creativity and freedom in fashion. And that’s maybe the reason why I wanted to do it so badly,” he said. “I believe strongly that couture actually may save fashion in its modern way.”
Gvasalia also made sure a piece of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s original creations were featured in the debut. A white wedding gown, similar to one from the late founder’s 1967 collection, was featured in the show and was later worn by Skims founder Kim Kardashian West at one of her soon-to-be-ex-husband Kanye West’s Donda events.
Balenciaga endures today as one of the industry’s most respected brands and the original designer’s legacy continues as the house he built challenges fashion barriers.