Historical Context

While the reasons for Balenciaga's departure from Spain in 1935 at the age of forty, and his subsequent establishment in Paris, are not clear, it is probable that the commercial and political situation in Europe contributed to his move. In the 1930s Paris was the fashion mecca not only for ambitious designers but also for the cosmopolitan women they dressed. The French government fostered couture and its ancillary trades because they were important national export industries. Subsidies encouraged the use of French textiles, and textile manufacturers supplied short runs of rare fabrics for couture collections. The trade organization Chambre Syndicale de la couture parisienne guided the regulation of conditions of employment, training for prospective couturiers, and the efficient coordination of the twice-yearly showings of all couturiers' collections. This arrangement made the trade desirable, as private clients and commercial buyers from department stores and wholesale companies from other parts of Europe, the United States, and Japan could plan their visits in advance and make the most of their time in Paris. Before World War II, no other country boasted such a highly organized and prestigious fashion system, a fact of which Balenciaga must have been aware as early as about 1920.

Woman modeling Balenciaga coat and dress. This ensemble smartly conveys several Balenciaga trademarks, such as elegance and grandeur, monochromatic colors, and a perfect fit. Henry Clarke/Vogue © 1995 Conde Nast Publications, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

19th Century Harlem Fashion

Woman modeling Balenciaga coat and dress. This ensemble smartly conveys several Balenciaga trademarks, such as elegance and grandeur, monochromatic colors, and a perfect fit. Henry Clarke/Vogue © 1995 Conde Nast Publications, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

That Balenciaga chose to "defect" some fifteen years later was probably linked to the increasingly difficult political situation in Spain, a state of affairs that did not bode well for those who made their living from fashion. In 1931 the Spanish monarchy fell, and a period of uncertainty preceded the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Balenciaga lost his main clientele of the 1920s, the Spanish royal family and the aristocracy who summered in San Sebastián and wintered in Madrid. Consequently, he closed down his branch in the north of Spain just after it opened. The advent of war did not improve his prospects, so his move to Paris (via London) was timely. By 1939, when he reopened his houses in Spain, he had made a reputation in Paris, gaining an international clientele that far outstripped the captive following he had had in Spain.

During World War II, he moved back and forth between the two countries, keeping a connection with his familial and cultural roots and control of his modest fash ion empire. At the end of the war he continued this practice. Even when he spent long periods in Paris, he did not lose contact with Spaniards, as both his business and home were in the district frequented by Spanish émigrés, many of his business associates or employees were Spanish, and his friends included his fellow countrymen the artists Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Pablo Palazuelo.

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