Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre (21 January 1895 – 23 March 1972) was a Spanish fashion designer, and the founder of the Balenciaga fashion house. He had a reputation as a couturier of uncompromising standards and was referred to as “the master of us all” by Christian Dior and as “the only couturier in the truest sense of the word” by Coco Chanel, who continued, “The others are simply fashion designers”. On the day of his death, in 1972, Women’s Wear Daily ran the headline “The king is dead”.
Since 2011 the purpose built Museo Balenciaga has exhibited examples of his work in his birth town Getaria. Many of the 1,200 pieces in the collection were supplied by his pupil Hubert de Givenchy and clients such as Grace Kelly.
LIFE AND CAREER
Balenciaga was born in Getaria, province of Gipuzkoa, (Basque Country) on 21 January 1895. His father was a simple fisherman who died when Cristobal was a boy, and his mother a seamstress. As a child Balenciaga often spent time with his mother as she worked. At the age of twelve, he began work as the apprentice of a tailor. When he was a teenager, the Marchioness de Casa Torres, the foremost noblewoman in his town, became his customer and patron. She sent him to Madrid, where he was formally trained in tailoring. (Balenciaga is notable as one of the few couturiers in fashion history who could not only use his own hands to create, but pattern, cut, and sew the designs which symbolized the height of his artistry).
Balenciaga was successful during his early career as a designer in Spain. He opened a boutique in San Sebastián in 1919, which expanded to include branches in Madrid and Barcelona. The Spanish royal family and the aristocracy wore his designs, but when the Spanish Civil War forced him to close his stores, Balenciaga moved to Paris. He opened his Paris couture house on Avenue George V in August 1937.
However, it was not until the post-war years that the full scale of the inventiveness of his highly original designs became evident. 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 1957. In 1959, his work culminated in the Empire line, with high-waisted dresses and coats cut like kimonos.
In 1960 he made the wedding dress for Fabiola de Mora y Aragón when she married King Baudouin I of Belgium. The Queen later donated her wedding dress to the Cristóbal Balenciaga Foundation.
He created many designs for socialite Aline Griffith, diplomat Margarita Salaverría Galárraga, and designer Meye Allende de Maier, considering them his muses.
He taught fashion design classes, inspiring other designers including Oscar de la Renta, André Courrèges, Emanuel Ungaro, Mila Schön and Hubert de Givenchy.
His often spare, sculptural creations were considered masterworks of haute couture in the 1950s and 1960s.
Balenciaga closed his house in 1968 at the age of 74 after working in Paris for 30 years. He decided to retire and closed his fashion houses in Paris, Barcelona and Madrid, one after the other. Balenciaga died on 23 March 1972 in Xàbia, Spain.
Today the Balenciaga fashion house continues under the direction of Demna Gvasalia and under the ownership of the Kering.
Balenciaga was gay, although he kept his sexuality private throughout his life. The love of his life and long time partner was Franco-Polish millionaire Władzio Jaworowski d’Attainville, who had helped fund setting him up. When d’Attainville died in 1948, Balenciaga was so broken he considered closing the business.