Cristobal Balenciaga

B. January 21, 1895 D. March 24, 1972

Birthplace: Guetaria, San Sebastian, Spain Award: Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur

At the age of twelve, Cristobal Balenciaga began his self-education as a tailor. Thirty years later, this fisherman's son became the premier couturier of France, dressing the most elite women of the world. Balenciaga's first entree into the fashion arena came in 1915 through his tailoring business in San Sebastian, Spain. In 1922 he established the Eisa fashion house in Barcelona, which relocated to Madrid in 1932. Balenciaga emigrated to Paris during the 1937 Spanish Civil War where he founded the House of Balenciaga and showed his first collection in August 1937.

Balenciaga was a master tailor. A perfectionist in every detail, he could engineer a design out of a single seam. Unlike Christian Dior and Charles James, who used elaborate interior support structures to develop silhouettes, Balenciaga combined the principles of geometry with the properties of fabrics such as gazar, satin, shantung, ottoman, and double knit to create his architectural forms. The result was a garment that could carry itself, sculpted to drift over the body, flattering the not-so-perfect figures of "women of a certain age." His designs were often copied by American manufacturers because this same framing concept allowed a single off-the-rack garment to fit a wide range of figure types.

Balenciaga refused to participate in the politics of the French fashion industry. He did not bow to fashion trends, nor feel the need to redefine the fashionable silhouette every season. Instead, with every collection, he continued to refine his design concepts. Balenciaga refused membership in the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture and would not participate in the media hype that surrounded every fashion season. Instead, he showed his collections a month after the season, the only designer other than Hubert de Givenchy to stand against the establishment. As a result, he was often ostracized by the press, and his contributions to fashion were overlooked. Christian Dior, a media darling, often received the recognition for launching fashion innovations that were first featured in Balenciaga's collections.

Boxy, semifitted suits; tunic dresses; 7/8 length sleeves; stand-away collars; voluminous evening coats with dolman sleeves; and magnificent ball gowns were Balenciaga's hallmarks. As early as 1950, he began experimenting with the silhouette that would dominate the 1960s: the chemise. He was also the first to show the sack dress in 1956. His designs reflected brilliant colors and rich textures inspired by the Spanish baroque. Black lace, flamenco ruffles, jet beads and fringe accented his designs.

The new emphasis on the youth market in the 1960s disheartened Ba-lenciaga; he was not interested in designing miniskirts, and in 1968 he closed his doors. During his thirty-year reign, he designed timeless fashions, trained designers such as Andre Courreges and Emanuel Ungaro, mentored Hubert de Givenchy, launched two fragrances (Le Dix in 1948 and Quad-reille in 1955), and designed uniforms for Air France. In 1972 Balenciaga quietly passed away and, for the next fourteen years, the House of Balen-ciaga lay dormant.

In 1986 the house was purchased by Jacques Bogart S.A., and a new ready-to-wear label, Le Dix, was created under designer Michel Goma. The first collection was shown in October 1987. For the next five years, Goma struggled to define an image for Balenciaga. In 1992 Dutch designer Jose-phus Melchior Thimister replaced Goma, but he also failed to create an image for Balenciaga. Nicolas Ghesquiere, a license designer for Balenciaga, was promoted to head designer in 1997. Ghesquiere, like Balenciaga a self-taught designer, was apprenticed to Jean-Paul Gaultier and Agnes B. The hip, fresh interpretation of Balenciaga classics, such as the semifitted jacket and the sack dress, caught the attention of the media as well as such celebrities as Madonna and Sinead O'Connor. Now, all eyes remain on Ghes-quiere to see if he will be able to return the House of Balenciaga to its former glory and restore the couture line. See also: Christian Dior; Charles James; Hubert de Givenchy; Andre Courreges; Emanuel Ungaro; Jean-Paul Gaultier.

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