The Master of Us All, Balenciaga His Workrooms, His World
by Mary Blume,
Farrar, Straus, Giroux 2013
The news of Oscar de la Renta’s death this past Monday (Oct.20th 2014) snapped one of the last remaining threads stretched between Balenciaga’s era and our own. As a young man, Mr. de la Renta had worked briefly at Balenciaga and the imprint of the great Spanish designer is on his work. You see it in de la Renta’s architectural designs and his love of deep ruffles.
Balenciaga, as Mary Blume makes clear in this gracefully written biography, was a man whose ambitions began and ended in the workroom. Famously called “The master of us all” by Christian Dior, he was one of the few couturiers who could perform all of the tasks of the fashion house in order, from measurements, to design, to pattern, to fitting and completion. He was, in other words, not merely a designer but a technician of spectacular ability, whose mind ran upon the changing volumes of fabric on the human body, and how to build a harmonious structure from the meeting of form and covering. He was the architect of a thousand textile habitations for women.
Balenciaga is associated with Paris couture, of course, but was born in Getaria in Northern Spain in 1895 and had already founded a couture house there he came to Paris in 1936. He was taken under the wing of Madeleine Vionnet, up to that time the very best of the Paris couturieres. As Mary Blume explains, before his dialogue with Vionnet (which continued until his death, for Balenciaga dressed the couturiere after her own house closed) his dresses were correct and beautifully tailored, but not startling. Whether it was the encouragement of the older designer, or the couture itself, or some stimulating yeast in the air of Paris, a catalyst of creative fermentation began in the cave-like Basque depths of Balenciaga. He started to turn out the magnificent dresses for which he is still known today.
His was the sort of ability that contemporaries and competitors are forced to acknowledge, and it is true that even such cantankerous individuals as Gabrielle Chanel did so easily. The two designers were friends for years and only fell out over an impromptu piece of self promotion of Chanel’s for which Balenciaga – who had a horror of publicity- would not exit from his customary privacy. He was also partly responsible for launching the careers of such well known designers as Hubert de Givenchy and Courreges.
However it was Balenciaga himself who fascinated. He was shy and retiring to an almost reclusive degree but also demanding of his seamstresses to an almost incredible degree, and yet, few of them seem to have born him any ill will, despite his unpredictable rages in the atelier. His prices were among the highest in Paris, and his staff was frosty, but he still had many fanatically loyal customers. He dressed Spanish royalty, and Hollywood royalty like Marlene Dietrich, but it was his intricate work inside dresses that made him into legend.
He was an enigma. Never particularly interested in dressing bone thin models, Balenciaga preferred to create clothing for the rotund and the middle aged. His dresses when taken apart, have revealed cunningly curved seams which only appeared straight, thereby giving comfort to wearers who were not always small in size. His clothes though gave every woman dignity, there are no dresses from Balenciaga in questionable taste. He would have vetoed them with a Spanish colloquial term “cursi!” which became familiar in his workrooms, the rough meaning of which is “vulgar chic, kitschy”. He would never stand for it.
His other great nemesis was the sleeve. He was, until the end of his seventy six years, quite obsessed with inset sleeves and could be seen ripping them out in the last hour before a fashion show to the despair of his staff, and resetting them. Perhaps because of this attention to minutiae, he did not remain in business during the sixties tidal wave of prêt-à–porter, but retired in 1968, and died in 1972. He attended his old frenemy Chanel’s funeral only the year before his own death.
Mary Blume takes the right tack in her biography of approaching the hermetically sealed world of Balenciaga through his work. She suggests that this is the only way to know this most cloistered of men, and that in the form of his dresses is the form of the couturier himself. He was always more about structures than surfaces.