‘Balenciaga gave the world fashion. He was the beginning of everything, everything that is news — forever. Mention anything, raincoats, black stockings, the most luxurious fashions in the world — great fabrics…the color, the color, good God, the color. I used to have my secretary sit next to me at the collections and take down his marvelous combinations of color. He gave the world fashion. He gave the femmes du monde clothes.’ – Diana Vreeland 

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Cristóbal Balenciaga was the Spanish designer whom Christian Dior called ‘the master of us all’.

Vogue summed it up in 1962: ‘Almost since the first day he launched his salon in 1937 he has been acclaimed as the great leader in fashion; what Balenciaga does today, other designers will do tomorrow, or next year, by which time he will have moved on again.’

Cristóbal Balenciaga opened his first boutique in San Sebastián, Spain, in 1919, which becomes successful and spawns branches in Madrid and Barcelona (his boutiques were called Eisa, a shortened version of Eisaguirre, his mother’s maiden name). When the Spanish Civil War forced him to close his stores, Balenciaga moved to Paris, where he opened his couture house on Avenue George V in August 1937. For the next 30 years his collections featured sumptuously elegant dresses and suits. 


‘He is the only designer I can think of who never did anything in bad taste.’ – Oscar de la Renta


Cristóbal Balenciaga was a total perfectionist, he dedicated most of his working hours to perfecting and simplifying his cut and line and like most of his contemporaries, Balenciaga was self-taught.

Customers risked their safety to travel to Europe during World War II to see Balenciaga’s clothing.

He reshaped women’s silhouette in the 1950s, nothing fitted the body with the supple ease of a Balenciaga suit, and once women had worn his clothes they were often unwilling to wear anything else. Many of his clients, remembering their Balenciagas, spoke of ‘how easy and right they felt, as nothing has felt since.’ He totally transformed the silhouette, broadening the shoulders and removing the waist.

Hubert de Givenchy once told Vogue a story in which he declared: ’I remember one day we were looking at the dummies of some of his clients; one was the shape of an old woman, her back was stooped with rounded shoulders and she had a big stomach and hips. While I watched, Balenciaga took a piece of muslin, pinned it to the dummy, and began to work with it. By seaming and cutting on the bias of the fabric he gradually made the stooped dummy straighten, the round hips and stomach disappear. The proportions became almost perfect. It was like a miracle.’

His garments were not designed to please his customers, but to please himself.

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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.’

His models reflected the different body types of his clients and showed that anyone could look good in his clothes. Balenciaga did not appear at the openings of his collections. Nor did clients see him for fittings as a rule. All of his collections were a work in progress, a continuum to explore and develop ideas and ways of using fabrics, many of which he cut himself.


‘He was the hero to every serious designer. He took fashion to an art plane it had never reached before and I think that it will never reach again.’ – Roy Halston Frowick


He was known to be the most expensive couturier in Paris. Although, those on a budget could always slip across the border to his Spanish couture house, Eisa, which quietly sold many of the more conservative outfits for about half the price.

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. 


‘Haute couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.’ – Christian Dior


Among his clients there were Bunny Mellon, Babe Paley, Millicent Rogers, Pauline de Rothschild, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Guinness and Mona von Bismarck. John F. Kennedy and Jackie got into fights during his Presidency about the fact that she was buying Balenciaga, which he thought the American public will find too extravagant. Her father-in-law, Joseph P. Kennedy, paid her bills.

Oscar de la Renta, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro worked in his atelier, while Hubert de Givenchy, who opened his own house in 1952, later became a protégé.


Balenciaga’s top fashion years:


1953: The balloon jacket.


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1955: The tunic dress.

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1957: The chemise, the cocoon coat, the balloon skirt, the baby doll dress, the sack dress.

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1959: The Empire line, with high-waisted dresses and kimono coats.

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1960: Balenciaga makes the wedding dress for Fabiola de Mora y Aragón when she marries King Baudouin I of Belgium.

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January 1968: Last Balenciaga Paris collection.


 Balenciaga’s final words when he closed his couture house in 1968 are reputed to have been, ‘It’s a dog’s life.’

In March 1972, Women’s Wear Daily ran the next headline: The king is dead. Everybody knew back then to whom it referred.

‘He alone was a couturier in the truest sense of the word… The others are simply fashion designers.’ – Coco Chanel

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