Designers seemed to be moonlighting as sculptors this season. Witness the moulded trapeze coats at Proenza Schouler or Mary Katrantzou’s U-shaped hems. Even the single-minded Phoebe Philo at Céline, whose inspirations seem to come from her own genius alone, presented cocoons and undulating skirts, channelling the one couturier who was on everybody’s lips: Cristóbal Balenciaga.
And who could blame them? Before the fall shows began in February, tongues were wagging over what wunderkind Alexander Wang, Balenciaga’s newly appointed creative director, would do with the house’s prescient heritage.
After apprenticing as a tailor from the age of 12, the Spanish-born Cristóbal Balenciaga opened his first salon in San Sebastiàn in 1918 at 23. Business expanded rapidly in Spain, spawning outposts in Madrid and Barcelona, and Balenciaga soon became the Spanish aristocracy’s dressmaker of choice. Forced to flee when the Spanish Civil War enveloped the country and the old upper class fell with Franco’s takeover, he relocated to Paris in 1937 and opened his atelier on Avenue George V, where his unmatched talent at shaping fabric garnered admiration from even Coco Chanel, otherwise infamous for her fashion-world jealousies. “Balenciaga is a couturier in the truest sense of the word,” she proclaimed.
“Only he is capable of cutting material, assembling a creation and sewing it by hand. The others are simply fashion designers.” The Rothschilds, Barbara Hutton and Marlene Dietrich were among the many loyal clients to don garments that left space—often copious amounts of it—between the fabric and the body. as Mary Blume explained in her recent biography, The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His Worlds, he thought of couture not as decoration, but as sculpture. His exaggerated tulip evening gowns, cropped trapeze coats and drop-waisted baby-dolls (he did it before Saint Laurent or Riot Grrrls) changed the shape of fashion quite literally, going beyond the wasp and empire waists that were so popular during the postwar era.
Yet while his work was progressive, Balenciaga himself was staunchly conservative. He closed his atelier in 1968 as the Youthquake’s casual prêt-à-porter fashions swept Paris. For him, fashion was luxury: He dressed the Marquesa de Casa Torres and hosted royalty in his Paris salon.
Though Balenciaga left prematurely, his designs continue to inspire—they preempted the cleansed palette and striking lines that many designers tried to achieve this season, Wang chief among them. His marble-motifed debut for the label featured rounded backs, petal skirts and hyper-structured peplums lifted from its treasured codes. indeed, the new Balenciaga looked as Cristóbal might have liked it.