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Designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, the king. He wasn’t royalty, but he may as well have been. Balenciaga’s legacy is unlike any other in the fashion industry—a cool air of mystery and sophistication surrounded the couturier, whose designs stunned all who encountered them. Masterful, genius, and a little aloof, Balenciaga and his innovative designs continue to be revered long after his death in 1972. But just what made him so highly respected in the fashion community?
To start, Balenciaga’s knack for understanding and accommodating the human body made him a masterful architect of design. He was able to seamlessly mesh together bold, heavy textiles alongside delicate, intricate details in his work. His ability to manipulate fabrics into stunning structural pieces gave his designs a powerful and regal feel. The designer was skilled in transforming women’s bodies and creating new and exciting silhouettes that influenced most of the fashion trends from the 1950s onward. His designs were unique, well-fitted, and unmistakably stylish—the trifecta of good fashion.
He was constantly revising silhouettes, dropping waistlines, altering the neck to expose more of the collarbone, and playing with length and volume frequently. In 1958, he removed the waistline altogether, inventing the baby-doll dress, which became one of his greatest claims to fame. His garments were well known for allowing his models to breathe, walk, and move comfortably.
Throughout his successes, Balenciaga himself remained an elusive figure. He was rarely seen, actively avoiding the spotlight or any praise, and he preferred to enjoy watching his own fashion shows from the shadows in the back of the venue—leading many to wonder if he existed at all. His stoic personality, peculiar habits, and indifferent view of fame spark compelling stories of the designer and his legacy. He reportedly encouraged his models to remain emotionless to the crowd at his shows. They were deterred from engaging with the audience in any way, out of fear that it might detract from the beauty of the clothes. Often, his shows were watched in complete silence, the only noise being the flutter of heels on the runway floor. Balenciaga preferred it that way. Each piece was meant to portray its own statement, each creation eliciting its own story.
Balenciaga’s remarkable construction skills and simplistic, geometric silhouettes allowed his designs to be replicated in just about every size and shape for women in any country of the world. He was a talented tailor, specializing in flattery, illusion, and shape. He understood the body form and most importantly, understood how to engineer a garment to flatter it. In a word, Balenciaga was a genius.
In 1972, the king of couture died, and the fashion world crumbled. Regular customers of his were crushed, as the designer was a fashion idol and a god-like figure to many. Today, Balenciaga is revered for his ingenuity, artistic vision, and undeniable tailoring skills. His designs are worn by pop culture icons Beyoncé, Gwyneth Paltrow, Katie Holmes, Kristen Stewart, and more.
Beginning May 27th and lasting through February 2018, his designs will be showcased alongside forensic-style X-rays by Nick Veasey as part of an exhibit for “Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion” at Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The X-rays provide an interesting glimpse into the inner construction of the garments in a dramatic display of the designer’s work. If you can't make it there yourself, keep a look out on social media as the drama ensues!