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Cristóbal Balenciaga. SUR
“The King is Dead”: 50 years since the death of Balenciaga

“The King is Dead”: 50 years since the death of Balenciaga

Cristóbal Balenciaga, dubbed the 'King of haute couture' was an international fashion phenomenon. His work is being showcased in Malaga's Museo Automovilístico y de la Moda

ALEKK M. SAANDERS

Friday, 25 March 2022, 16:23

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Cristóbal Balenciaga was born in the small Basque town of Getaria in 1895. Couture was in his blood: his mother was a seamstress, and he began helping her at an early age. His dream of becoming a dressmaker became a reality when he opened his first shop, Elisa, in San Sebastian in 1917.

In 1933, the Balenciaga label expanded to Madrid, and to Barcelona two years later, where his designs were often chosen by the Spanish royal family and aristocracy.

The Spanish Civil War forced the Balenciaga shops to relocate to Paris. In 1937, the Spanish dressmaker opened his atelier on Avenue George V. His success was astounding, and he was made a knight of the Legion of Honour in France.

Cristóbal Balenciaga's style was innovative. He created silhouettes with a pinched waist, rounded hips and dropped shoulders. His iconic clothes were easily recognised through square coats without collars or buttons, tunic dresses, transparent mackintoshes and Japanese sleeves.

The unique Balenciaga work (handmade with rhinestones) is in Malaga but stowed away.
The unique Balenciaga work (handmade with rhinestones) is in Malaga but stowed away. MAM

'The true father of haute couture'

Cristóbal Balenciaga's perfectionism fascinated his colleagues, and his devotion to high fashion earned him the title 'the father of haute couture'. Christian Dior named him 'the master of us all', and Coco Chanel stressed that he is 'the only couturier in the truest sense of the word'. The Spaniard could transform a cloth into a dress without needing to cut or seam, sometimes even without fittings.

He trained many other couturiers in his atelier, including Paco Rabanne, André Courrèges, Emanuel Ungaro, and Hubert de Givenchy, for whom Balenciaga was like father.

Balenciaga's designs were popular in the United States, especially among ladies of high fashion and in show business. Americans came to account for 70 per cent of the label's clientele. The likes of Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, and Jackie Kennedy chose Balenciaga's dresses for red-carpet events. Bunny Mellon was one of his main admirers.

Business was gravely affected by General de Gaulle's anti-American policy in the 1960s, when Americans stopped buying French haute couture.

Balenciaga trained Paco Rabanne, André Courrèges, Emanuel Ungaro, and Hubert de Givenchy.

In May 1968, after 50 years of business, the couturier suddenly decided to retire. A couple of months later, his Paris headquarters and Madrid ateliers were closed.

Balenciaga returned to Spain, heading to the warm Meditarrnean coast. He settled in Altea, a small Alicante town, where he lived a quiet life, spending his time painting, talking and eating with friends.

One final dress

In 1972, the retired designer accepted a commission to design a wedding dress for Carmen Martínez-Bordiú.

The wedding dress worn by Carmen Martínez-Bordiú on 8 March was Balenciaga's swan-song.

That wedding dress worn by Carmen on 8 March was Balenciaga's swan-song. Two weeks later, on 23 March, Cristóbal Balenciaga suffered an unexpected heart attack at the Parador Hotel in Jávea. The American Women's Wear Daily announced the news with the headline “The King is Dead”.

The commemoration year

The couturier was buried in his native Getaria where in 2011, the Cristobal Balenciaga Museum was inaugurated, where it boasts a collection of about 1,200 pieces.

On 18 March, the Museum opened the exhibition "Balenciaga. Character" to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Igor Uría, the museum's collections director, told SUR in English, "This significant year we are proposing to show more than just the silhouettes and volumes for which Balenciaga is known in the history of fashion. The monographic exhibition aims to show a new perspective on the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga, while at the same time disseminating the work of the Museum, bringing his creativity closer to the public's understanding. We hope that people from Malaga will come to our picturesque Getaria and visit our new exposition."

From the Museo Automovilístico y de la Moda collection. MAM
Imagen principal - From the Museo Automovilístico y de la Moda collection.
Imagen secundaria 1 - From the Museo Automovilístico y de la Moda collection.
Imagen secundaria 2 - From the Museo Automovilístico y de la Moda collection.

Malaga is also contributing to the 50th anniversary of the designer's passing by displaying some of his work in the Museo Automovilístico y de la Moda: a black cape in the Le Cabaret Room, some exclusive Balenciaga hats in the headdress room, a beige cape combiened with a black dress and rhinestone hat in the Black Room.

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