A sparkling life of the monumental fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga
When Cristóbal Balenciaga died in 1972, the news hit the front page of The New York Times. One of the most innovative and admired figures in the history of haute couture, Balenciaga was, said Schiaparelli, "the only designer who dares do what he likes." He was, said Christian Dior,"the master of us all."
But despite his extraordinary impact, Balenciaga was a man hidden from view. Unlike today's celebrity designers, he saw to it that little was known about him, to the point that some French journalists wondered if he existed at all. Even his most notable and devoted clients―Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Hutton, a clutch of Rothschilds―never met him.
But one woman knew Balenciaga very well indeed. The first person he hired when he opened his Paris house (then furnished with only a table and a stool) was Florette Chelot, who became his top vendeuse―as much an adviser as a saleswoman. She witnessed the spectacular success of his first collection, and they worked closely for more than thirty years, until 1968, when Balenciaga abruptly closed his house without telling any of his staff. Youth-oriented fashion was taking over, Paris was in upheaval, and the elder statesman wanted no part of it.
In The Master of Us All , Mary Blume tells the remarkable story of the man and his house through the eyes of the woman who knew him best. Intimate and revealing, this is an unprecedented portrait of a designer whose vision transformed an industry but whose story has never been told until now.
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Mary Blume, a native New Yorker who lives in Paris, was a longtime columnist for the International Herald Tribune. She is the author of Côte d'Azur: Inventing the French Riviera and of a collection of her Herald Tribune pieces, A French Affair.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Cristóbal Balenciaga: a beautiful name. Elle magazine rhapsodized in 1950 that the four syllables of “Balenciaga” simply burst forth upon the page (actually, there are five), while a contemporary poet sees in the name’s “swaying melody the flowing quality of Balenciaga’s clothes and exquisite justesse of their proportions.” It is a once-upon-a-time sort of name that should be part of a fable, and it is.
The setting is the humble fishing village of Getaria on Spain’s Basque coast, between San Sebastián and Bilbao, the date early in the last century. The fairy tale has many versions, but let Pauline de Rothschild, the former Pauline Potter, begin:
In the center of a street made dark by the shadows of its thick stone houses, a woman was walking, her back turned to the light from the sea. She wore a pale, ankle length, silk shantung suit. The severe houses enclosed her, shuttered.
A boy was watching her.
She would come almost abreast of him, and he would run up a side-street of the fishing village, so closely carved into the mountain that its streets are as steep and narrow as Genoa’s, some entirely made of steps. Down another he would run and be ahead of her again.
Then he would stare.
One day he stopped her, and asked if he could make a suit for her. The boy was about thirteen, with dark hair and darker eyes and the smile he would keep all his life.
“Why do you want to do this?” she asked.
“Because I think I can,” he answered.
The boy was Cristóbal Balenciaga …
The woman was the old Marquesa de Casa Torres (or her daughter-in-law) and she was wearing a white (or beige) Worth, Drecoll, Ceruit, or Redfern dress or suit, according to who is telling the tale. She was possibly on her way to (or from) Mass. The boy may have been as young as six (or as old as nineteen), and his father—who had died of a heart attack or was drowned at sea—was either a fisherman or the captain of the royal yacht. Cheeky young Cristóbal, the legend continues, copied her outfit so perfectly that the marquesa became his patron and took him while he was still in his teens to meet the great couturier Jacques Doucet in Paris.
Some of this is true.
But much of it isn’t. The very plainness of plain fact has never seemed to fit someone so exotic as Balenciaga (as if the amazing could not spring from the quotidian), and so for decades the legends were embellished rather than investigated. Then a young Basque curator named Miren Arzalluz took the trouble to dig into official records and in 2010 published her findings about Balenciaga’s family and early years. Myths, uncovered facts, and one’s own instinct about the mix can finally make a coherent, if spare, whole.
Getaria, Balenciaga’s birthplace, is a modest and handsome fishing village whose past as a whaling port brought it sufficient wealth to have as its center an oversize Gothic church, San Salvador, of surpassing gloom and considerable weirdness because its near-trapezoidal floor tilts noticeably up toward the altar. A statue near the city hall honors the local hero, Sebastián de Elcano, the first captain to circumnavigate the globe (as Magellan’s second in command he took over when Magellan was killed in the Philippines), and new plaques mark the birthplaces of Balenciaga, in a tidy small house near the church, and the mother of Plácido Domingo, over an anchovy cannery. Getaria has excellent fish that restaurateurs grill in the street, and gray buildings whose sound proportions and straightness of line are bolder than the often-quaint Basque architecture of France. Even now Getaria has an air of provincial rectitude; its inhabitants provided San Sebastián, thirty kilometers along the coast, with fish and services when the Spanish king and his court went there each summer.
In about 1853, France’s Empress Eugénie, who was born in Spain, invented Biarritz as a fashionable resort. Following her example, in 1887, Queen María Cristina of Spain decided to make San Sebastián, across the border, the official summer home of the Spanish court. While Biarritz is dramatic and citified, San Sebastián is calmer and more elegant, with a wide seafront and restaurants that have made it a foodie mecca today. Friends in Paris were often surprised by the supposedly austere Balenciaga’s pleasure in good eating, but he was Basque, and three existential questions, it is said, trouble the Basques each day: Where do we come from? Who are we? What are we going to have for dinner?
The last question results in excellent local cooking; the first two are harder. No one knows where the Basques come from—even the prevalent blood type differs from that of other Europeans—and they like to think of themselves as Europe’s aborigines, their spiritual locus being an ancient oak tree in Guernica. The Basques’ language, Euskera, once believed to be the tongue spoken in the Garden of Eden, bears no relation to any other, and they group all the other languages in the world in one single dismissive word, Erdera. They are proud (by an ancient royal Spanish edict they are all aristocrats), deeply Catholic, and intractable. Cristóbal Balenciaga was definitely Basque.
The family was modest but respected: his father, a fisherman, served briefly as mayor of Getaria and rose to skipper the launch that was often used by the Spanish court, including the queen, in the summer season. His mother bore five children, two of whom died in infancy. Cristóbal, born in 1895, was the youngest; his sister, Agustina, and his brother, Juan Martín, remained his business associates in Spain throughout their lives. The older children were already at work when their father died after a stroke, leaving eleven-year-old Cristóbal alone to help out his mother, Martina Eizaguirre.
Well before her husband’s death Martina was already giving sewing lessons to local girls and making dresses for private clients such as the Marquesa de Casa Torres, whose dressmaker she became a year before before Cristóbal was born. Hubert de Givenchy says that Balenciaga told him that his first attempt at design was to make a necklace for his cat (“but since you can’t make a cat lie on its back all the beads scattered”), while a French magazine claims that he began by making a coat, including the legs, for his dog (presumably an early manifestation of his passion for sleeves). In any event the boy was at home with his mother, helping out, playing with scraps of fabric, and often going with her for fittings in the homes of summering aristocrats.
So the long-accepted legend of the meeting between the marquesa and the boy must be replaced by more convincing fact: he knew the marquesa and her home, just up the hill from the center of Getaria, from childhood. While he was helping his mother or playing with the marquesa’s children, he took in her wardrobe and her fashion magazines and her well-chosen furnishings (the marqués owned paintings by Goya and Velásquez), plugging naturally into the world of high style where he would spend his life. Not only could he study the Paris gowns his mother copied for summer use, but he could also learn to appreciate English tailoring and take in such novelties as department stores and buying by catalog, both of which the marquesa enjoyed.
Although he was never at ease with the French gratin, or upper crust, from her he picked up a comfortable familiarity with the Spanish aristocracy: it was of course Balenciaga who made the wedding dress of the marquesa’s great-grandaughter, Fabiola, when she married the king of the Belgians in 1960, and a few years later one of his models was astonished to see, on the salon’s white sofa, the taciturn Balenciaga laughing and chatting away with an elderly lady who turned out to be Victoria Eugenia, the former queen of Spain.
Through the marquesa, the twelve-year-old Balenciaga apprenticed with a San Sebastián tailor, then moved on to a tonier shop called New England, and to the new San Sebastián branch of the Grand Magasins du Louvre department store, which was patronized not only by the marquesa but by María Cristina, the dowager queen. By 1913 he was being sent to Paris as a buyer. After a short spell in Bordeaux to learn French, in 1918 he opened his first salon, C. Balenciaga, in San Sebastián, then went into a six-year partnership with two sisters who provided most of the backing. Balenciaga’s investment was 7,362 pesetas and 25 céntimos, the 25 cents recalling that if his reputation was growing, his finances were still tight. When the six-year contract ended in 1924, he was able to open a new house, Cristóbal Balenciaga, gradually creating branches in Madrid and Barcelona under his name or under variations of Eisa, a reworking of his mother’s maiden name.
The timing was just right. While most of Europe agonized in World War I, Spain, which remained neutral, flourished, especially San Sebastián, enriched by the wealth of Bilbao, a port and a banking and industrial center, and by the well-heeled of all nations who came to bask in its elegance and ease. Old-timers such as the duchess, who went to Paris each year to order 365 hats (366 in leap year), would disappear after the war, but the new crowd was avid and deeply attractive to Paris couturiers who, starting in l917, arrived with their collections. The major houses of Callot, Paquin, and Worth showed in such luxury hotels as the Maria Cristina, and Balenciaga saw, and possibly met, Chanel at San Sebastián’s casino. Most important, he began a lifelong friendship with Madeleine Vionnet, the first designer to use the bias cut on the body of a dress, fashion’s equivalent of inventing the wheel.
Balenciaga probably met Vionnet when she showed her collection to the Spanish court at San Sebastián in 1920. He was already buying her clothes for his shop on his Paris trips (a hasty working sketch on a piece of hotel stationery in the Arts Décoratifs archive in Paris also suggests that he was not above pinching her ideas), but when they met and she saw his work she encouraged him to create rather than adapt other people’s designs. They shared a stubborn and exalted view of clothes as a sort of second skin that sculpts, rather than encases, the body: the couturier as a builder, not a decorator. They were both brilliant technicians, Balenciaga the more versatile in that he was as expert at tailoring coats and suits as at cutting soft fabrics, and both saw the designer as a craftsman dealing with clients and not as a remote artist. “A couturier dresses human beings, not dreams,” Vionnet would say. Their friendship lasted until Balenciaga’s death, and when I met Vionnet in the late 1960s she was just back from a two-week stay in Balenciaga’s country house near Orléans to recover from bronchitis and was wearing a floor-length bias-cut wool crepe skirt and matching vest that he had made for her in bright red (her own palette tended to shades of beige).
They were of equal historical importance—if Dior later called Balenciaga “the master of us all,” he also said “no one has carried the art of dressmaking farther than Vionnet”—but she was a generation older, having been born in 1876, and was already approaching glory when they met. Their clothes were dissimilar, Vionnet specializing in richly simple Greek-style folds, a deliciously errant vestal look, but they shared ardor and integrity—“a dress must be sincere,” Vionnet said—and had so intense an understanding of fabrics that neither of them liked to sketch. “I hate sketching. Designers who sketch have no feeling for fabric,” Vionnet said. Instead, she draped her fabrics on a wooden doll 31.5 inches tall, and Givenchy told me that when she was very old and bedridden and Balenciaga came to visit, she would show him something she had just confected on the doll with the wish that it might be useful to him. “And Cristóbal, with that marvelous smile, would say to me, Isn’t it adorable that at her age this woman would continue to work and give me her models,” Givenchy said. “He had until the end of his life someone who counted enormously for him, and that was Madame Vionnet.”
To the young Balenciaga, Vionnet must have seemed like a favorite teacher, firm but kind, and indeed she had hoped to teach, but a neighbor pointed out to her father (her mother had run off) that further studies would mean more clothing bills, so at the age of ten she was yanked out of school and apprenticed to a dressmaker. “If I had become a professor I would just have had a brain,” she said many years later. “Instead I discovered my hands and learned to love them.” In England to pick up the language, she became an attendant in a lunatic asylum, then worked for five years in Kate Reilly’s dressmaking establishment on Dover Street in London. Returning to Paris, she was engaged by the prestigious Callot Soeurs, then hired away by Jacques Doucet, a very grand designer and collector (he was an early patron of the furniture designer Eileen Gray and the first owner of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), in order to modernize his house. It was there that she discovered that the bias cut, a version of which had been used only to line garments, could give fabrics a new fluidity: “I wanted it and found it,” she told me. “It seemed natural.” The vendeuses, she added, hated it. In 1912 she opened her own modest house on the Rue de Rivoli and in 1923 got backing to become the first couturier on the Avenue Montaigne.
The House of Vionnet, at number 50, towered over its neighbors and triumphed in the architectural press as a perfect example of steel and glass Art Deco. It had 1,900 employees and 43 ateliers. While the grand salon of a house like Callot was heavy and crowded with furniture, Vionnet had a vast clean space framed with arches bordered in Lalique glass. When it came to opening his Paris house, Balenciaga followed Vionnet in keeping his public rooms simple and his private studio strictly off-limits. He did not follow Vionnet’s more compassionate innovations—a free staff cafeteria, medical service, and child care as well as classes for those who, like her, had had to leave school too young. Since he shared her loathing for copyists, having himself been one on a modest scale, he adopted her practice of photographing each model with its number, flat police lineup pictures, though he did not, like Vionnet, put his thumbprint on the label of every dress he made.
Vionnet was stronger and more authoritative than the young Balenciaga—he would not have said “I have never seen a fabric that refused to obey me,” even though it was true—and it was her strength and encouragement that helped him free his fantasy and develop his prodigious technique.
Discovering his talents, the young Balenciaga had great success—by the age of twenty-one he is said to have dressed the queen of Spain—and success brought a confidence he lost in his later days when his sole, and impossible, rival was his glorious self. After each new collection in the 1950s and ’60s, people recalled, he would be tearful and tense because it hadn’t been up to his standard. In all, it was a dog’s life, he said after his retirement. But when he was young and imperfect, all he had to do was get better, and he did.
And he found love. Probably on a buying trip to Paris he met a charming and well-connected young man with sleek dark hair, Wladzio Jaworowski d’Attainville, with whom he would live for some twenty years. D’Attainville was Polish-French; his mother, according to a story in American Vogue in the 1940s, entertained in style and was photographed grandly under a portr...
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