Tag Archives: Balenciaga

A Note on Balenciaga

Balenciaga1978A 1978 Balenciaga ad shot by Roland Bianchini at the boutique at 10, ave George-V

When Cristobal Balenciaga retired in 1968 he had already earned a reputation for being a bit stuffy and behind the times. While he dominated the 1950s the next decade saw a more spirited turn in fashion as ascending youth and street influences made his aristocratic posturing appear pompous and his stoic structures seem dowdy. A new generation of designers ventured where Balenciaga would not and the master lost his ground to the likes of Cardin, Saint Laurent and Courreges who were setting a new direction for fashion in the modern age. And when Balenciaga died in 1972 the house that beared his name, like many other great houses founded by brilliant dead designers, was chucked into fashion limbo.

Upon his death Balenciaga’s family sold the business to Hoescht AG, a German chemical company who presumably bought it for its fragrances. Under their management Balenciaga’s fashion prerogative diminished. Once a fashion leader it was licensed into an unremarkable purveyor of abutting double B monogrammed accessories and just-fashionable-enough bourgeois classics. By 1978 it was lost not only among new French names but formidable talents from Italy, The United States, and very quickly Japan. The glory days of Balenciaga were long past and wouldn’t return for another 20 years.

It would be very simple to dismiss the output of the house during this time as the runoff of a disinterested chemical company. You could very easily cite it as a classic case of fashion licensing gone awry. There is perhaps nothing here of value other than that the removal of Balenciaga from the fashion landscape as a major player enabled other talents to rise and fill the void. But then it would be a shame to overlook the curious anomaly that it presents. Balenciaga was a master tailor. His clothes were meticulous constructions built with the precision and consideration of a Corbusier. It was perhaps even his experimentation with structure and volume that launched the Space Age designers into their cosmic fantasies of form. But during the 1970s everything went soft, the line grew long and lean and here we see the codes of Balenciaga reinterpreted for a new time but, possibly because they had no such grand ambitions, without any overt affectation of its fashions. Balenciaga’s wide-cut a-line coats, an essential in his repertoire, is leaned out with long wide-leg pants. Present is his purist precision punctuated by a tasteful printed blouse and a conical Asian style bamboo hat — a nod to ’50s couture glamour. The modernist suggestion of a Balenciaga signature is given a truly modern ease revealing just how eternal his initial propositions could be provided they were adjusted appropriately. At the time such an update probably felt rehashed and probably like a chore, in hindsight it offers a rare and compelling interpretation of Balenciaga’s codes.

This 1978 update of course comes at the insistence of a new minimalist mood in the ’70s that was largely defined by Halston. That the Spanish legend and a good boy from the Midwest could at some point overlap is as much a fluke as it fate. Halston was a great admirer of Balenciaga and sought to instill the master’s purity and minimalist splendor into his own softer and more sensual designs sometimes seeing himself as Balenciaga’s spiritual heir. One could say that many of Halston’s innovations are indebted to Balenciaga, as much as Courreges’s or Ungaro’s in the ’60s. The implication here is powerful not because of what it meant for Halston but what it could mean for defining what a “modern” Balenciaga could be today, particularly now as designers like Pierpaolo Piccioli, Mara Grazia Chiuri, Christophe Lemaire, Veronique Branquinho and Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski set a new tone for fashionable luxury classics.


“Nothing Left To Achieve, Balenciaga Calls It a Day”


The great haute-couture house of Cristobal Balenciaga will close next month. A spokesman for the salon, which is on Avenue George V, finally confirmed the closing.

It was hard to understand what the woman said on the telephone for she sobbed as she spoke, breaking down into tears when she tried to talk. Private orders from the last collection, shown in February, will be filled. And then—probably in June—the doors of the house that 73-year-old Balenciaga has made the citadel of the haute couture will shut—maybe forever.

Only two weeks ago one of the designer’s employees issued a stinging denial of the closing rumors, which had been circulating both here and in New York for some time.

But it is believed that Balenciaga has perhaps nothing left to achieve professionally and is closing the house because he is bored.

His prestige with private clients has never faltered, although in the last few years American buyers have occasionally felt that his clothes looked too familiar, “too old” compared with the younger, more commercial creations that other Paris houses showed, and “too traditional.”

“We are desolated,” Jean-Claude de Givenchy said today when he heard the news, “we cannot express our distress.”

Mr. Givenchy was speaking on behalf of himself and his brother Hubert De Givenchy, the couturier. Hubert is a Balenciaga protégé and disciple.

Before his death, Christian Dior called Balenciaga “our master.” And Coco Chanel, the doyenne of Paris couturiers says:

“The others are just draftsman or copyists, or else they are inspired people or even geniuses, but Balenciaga alone is a couturier. He is the only one who can design, cut, put together, and sew a suit or a gown entirely alone.”

New York fashion leaders are equally upset.

“When history is written,” said Nancy White, editor of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, “his contribution has to be recognized as one of the greatest in fashion. We shall miss him.”

Jessica Daves, former editor of Vogue, attributes part of his success to what she calls “his Spanish way of thinking.”

“He has the best attitude towards women.” Miss Daves said. “He believes in elegance and ladies. I don’t think he ever did a vulgar thing. He doesn’t believe in sudden changes.”

Andrew Goodman, president of Bergdorf Goodman, said:

“It’s a tragic loss to the fashion world—the end of an era. He was a strong voice for elegance. He never compromised for a minute.”

– from THE NEW YORK TIMES, MAY 23, 1968

Balenciaga, 1996

Nicolas Ghesquiere accomplished one of the fashion industry’s most difficult tasks: bringing a forgotten designer house up from the doldrums of fashion lore to the feverish heights of hype and acclaim. His 15 years at Balenciaga saw the house rise from dusty French institution to an industry power player, changing the rules of the game and influencing a whole generation of students and future fashion designers.

To accomplish this Ghesquiere largely ignored the legacy of the house, reimagining Balenciaga’s otherworldly quality with his own preference for retro-futurism, a post-modern perspective that is as much an off shoot of Helmut Lang as it is Schiaparelli, an aesthetic that Ghesquiere singlehandedly brought to fashion’s consciousness where it evolved its own lexicon and systems; as developed as any other “ism” currently being explored. His references to the master were few and far between and often only addressed Balenciaga’s formal achievements rather than his conceptual, but regardless it was effective.

Ghesquiere’s modern vision for the house however was not its first. Before he took the helm, when he was designing the Japanese funeral license, Balenciaga was overseen by Josephus Thimister. The Antwerp trained designer started at Balenciaga in 1991 which at that point was a mere shadow of its former self having been mismanaged and shifted down market for decades. Thimister’s challenge to revive it was daunting and unprecedented. At that point Karl Lagerfeld, who Thimister had once worked under, was developing Chanel into the untouchable juggernaut it is today, but Thimister did not have accessible talismans like tweed suits or pearls to fetishize and latch on to, rather, he had an architectural consideration of volume, a grand ecclesiastical conservatism, but most importantly he had claim to the genesis of minimalism –  an abstract that Balenciaga’s  protégés Andre Courreges and Emannuel Ungaro would pursue and use to define the 1960s, that Halston would use as his benchmark for his easy luxury in the 1970s, and that in the ‘90s would almost come full circle, but not quite. Thimister’s challenge would be to reconcile the haughty minimalism of Balenciaga in an era that not only embraced the master’s distaste for excess but held distaste for his own aristocratic and snobbish ambitions. The minimalism of the ’90s had no use for couture egos or the women who cherished them. Thimister had to reconstruct Balenciaga’s legacy for a new era.

The success of his time at Balenciaga is up to debate and perhaps speaks to why Nicholas Ghesquiere was wary of treading directly into the archives until almost a decade after he took the post. But Thimister’s collections for Balenciaga highlight two important things: the minimalist codes of the house which were largely abandoned by Ghesquiere yet speak to Cristobal Balenciaga’s design trajectory (had he not found the couture business futile and closed operations in 1968) and to the talent and sophistication of Thimister’s team,  there being two designers from those days who might require special consideration. There was Bouchra Jarrar who stayed on when Thimister was dismissed and Ghesquiere took over. She now designs her own collection which itself gives great evidence to the impact she had on the first half of Ghesquire’s 15 years at the label. And there was Patrick van Ommeslaeghe who also launched his own eponymous line after leaving Balenciaga, before Ghesquiere was promoted. While his collection has been inactive for some time, Ommeslaeghe’s talents have been put to use at Jil Sander where he has served under Raf Simons as designer and art director for the women’s wear until Simons’s own departure from the label. Ommeslaeghe’s penchant for minimalism, stoic form, and abstraction are evident in the Halston-esque gowns of his independent line and hint a distinct flavor in the collections Raf developed for Jil Sander, most notably in the homages to golden age couture that Simons left with a high note on. It’s a history that’s all very curious now as PPR searches for a new designer to lead the way for Balenciaga’s future.

One of Balenciaga’s last designs, Vogue 1967

Simultaneity, 2011

Untitled by Sonia Delaunay, 1972

Two projects for dresses by Sonia Delaunay, 1924-1925

Delaunay in her own designs, 1923

The current Cooper Hewitt exhibit, Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay, could not have a come at a better time; the artist’s simultaneous dress has found itself strown far and across the Fall/Winter 2011 collections, showcasing her vivid use of color blocking, cubist rendering of the body, and focused application of craft. The Delaunay parallel speaks to a renewed interest in ornamentation, prodding designers toward a new language for decoration and embellishment. Delaunay had swam against the French fashion current developing her artistic dress, determined to practice a dress reform of her own. Purposely avoiding the convention and fashion cycle that dictated popular dress, Delaunay assembled her own vocabulary and visual codes within clothes. While designers have just rediscovered the benefits of reduction and restraint, the artistic dress and dress reform of the early 20th century and their expressions of progress in defiance of tradition seem all too appropriate as fashion now begins to reconstitute a sense of richness and craft.  

Fall/Winter 2011 collections by Prada, Proenza Schouler, Celine, Balenciaga, Chloe, Christopher Kane, Hermes, Rodarte, Dries Van Noten, Proenza Schouler, Jil Sander, and Louise Gray

While Delaunay is perhaps the most visible and recognized artist-turned-dress reformer, a look into the genre with a broader view reveals a much larger discussion and body of work…

 Projects for dresses by Italian Futurist Tullio Cralli, 1932-1933

Project for Suprematist clothing by Kazimir Malevich, 1923 

Gustave Klimt and Emilie Flöge wearing garments of Klimt’s design, 1905-1910