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Balenciaga: from the Royal Court to the Outer Space

Sunday, 12 December 2010

BalenciagaIrrespective of the period when they were created, designs by the world-famous brand Balenciaga have been too bold and avant-garde for their time. Not explicitly provoking or overpowered by vivid colors, rich fabrics or abundant detail, they are nevertheless very complex to perceive. There is no refinement of Dior, simple and elegant lines of Chanel, or frivolous affectation of Jean-Paul Gaultier - their trademark styles which make them instantly recognizable. Balenciaga is a brand that has inspired generations of designers with its unique style which masterfully combines hardcore metallic futurism, space courreges, clean-cut geometry, and the royal splendor.

Balenciaga is the epitome of designer luxury wear. It was once said, that if a woman walked into a room and she was wearing a Balenciaga gown, no other women were in the room. Balenciaga's clothes were thought of as to be perfect, and Cristobal Balenciaga was soon nicknamed ‘the Master'.

The story of the fashion house Balenciaga goes back to 1919, when founder Cristobal Balenciaga opened the doors to his very first fashion house in the Spanish city of San Sebastian. Before long there were also branches in Barcelona (1935) and Madrid (1933). Balenciaga's royal clients included the Queen of Spain, the Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace of Monaco and Princess Bismarck. Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Hutton, Ginger Rogers and Ingrid Bergmann were dressed by him. Pauline de Rothschild, Gloria Guinness and Bunny Mellon were also Balenciaga customers. His last creation was the wedding dress for the Duchess of Cadiz. Hence his commitment to voluminous skirts and lantern sleeves, which are the trademark of Balenciaga style to this day. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) forced Balenciaga to flee to Paris, where he was immediately proclaimed 'a genius' by the French Vogue and instantly became known in France and on the other side of the Atlantic. Within two years, the French press lauded him as a revolutionary, and his designs were highly sought-after.

The stir Balenciaga caused was due to his unusual approach to fashion and his way to dress women. Balenciaga took a constrained look of sophistication by cinching waistlines and creating pieces that complimented the feminine shoulders with broad confidence. The designer strove for perfection in his collections and was concerned about falling into bad taste which is easy when you expand the limits of fashion with revolutionary experiments. To maintain this subtle equilibrium, Balenciaga balanced the exuberance of shapes and silhouettes with modest colors and little detail - a Balenciaga gown was a finished piece of art that required no other accessories or embellishments, as would only unsettle the delicate harmony of the Master's creation.

After the World War II, his lines became more linear and sleek, diverging from the hourglass shape popularized by Christian Dior's New Look. The fluidity of his silhouettes enabled him to manipulate the relationship between his clothing and women's bodies. In 1951, he totally transformed the silhouette, broadening the shoulders and removing the waist. In 1955, he designed the tunic dress, which later developed into the chemise dress of 1958. Other contributions in the postwar era included the spherical balloon jacket (1953), the high-waisted baby doll dress (1957), the cocoon coat (1957), the balloon skirt (1957), and the sack dress (1957). In 1958, his work culminated in the Empire line, with high-waisted dresses and coats cut like kimonos. His manipulation of the waist, in particular, contributed to what is considered to be his most important contribution to the world of fashion: a new silhouette for women.

In the 1960s, Balenciaga was an innovator in his use of fabrics: he tended toward heavy fabrics, intricate embroidery, and bold materials. His trademarks included collars that stood away from the collarbone to give a swanlike appearance and shortened bracelet sleeves. His often spare, sculptural creations-including funnel-shape gowns of stiff duchess satin worn to acclaim by clients such as Pauline de Rothschild, Bunny Mellon, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Guinness and Mona von Bismarck-were considered masterworks of haute couture in the 1950s and 1960s. Cristobal Balenciaga presented his last haute couture collection in 1968. Then he closed all his couture houses in Paris, Barcelona and Madrid.

The revival of the Balenciaga fashion house took much longer that a year or two. In 1986, Jacques Bogart S.A. acquired the rights to Balenciaga, and opened a new ready-to-wear line, Le Dix. The first collection was designed by Michel Goma in October 1987, who remained at the house for the next five years to mixed reviews. He was replaced in 1992 with Dutch designer Josephus Thimister who began the restoration of Balenciaga to an elite, high-fashion status. During Thimister's term, a young Nicolas Ghesquiere would join as a license designer, and eventually promoted to head designer in 1997.

Today, each Balenciaga collection is a sort of comeback to the basics, to the signature style created by Cristobal Balenciaga, but with a new meaning. Present day Balenciaga often relies on the futuristic themes such as shiny metal suits, the Lego Shoes for impact. Now, a Balenciaga gown looks like a suitable substitute for a spacesuit, and possibly it's just the way Balenciaga wanted it - one step ahead of the rest of the world.

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