The luxury fashion house has had many reincarnations since its visionary designer retired 50 years ago.
“Balenciaga gave the world fashion. He was the beginning of everything, everything that is news – forever,” said legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland. Listing everything from raincoats to black stockings, plus the most luxurious fabrics and colour combinations, Vreeland credited designer Cristóbal Balenciaga for creating the future of fashion.
Before he was lauded as one of the greatest designers of the 20th century, Balenciaga grew up in a small village in the Gipuzkoa region of Spain, with his widowed mother who worked as a seamstress to get by. With no formal training, the Basque designer opened his first boutique in nearby San Sebastián in 1919, followed by stores in Madrid and Barcelona. The outlets, called Eisa after his mother’s maiden name Eisaguirre, were forced to close during the Spanish Civil War, but the resilient creative began again in Paris – officially opening the house of Balenciaga in 1937.
Ambidextrous, the designer would drape his couture concoctions directly over a mannequin, obsessively trying to perfect the clean lines and cuts of the fabric with equal skill in each hand. Although he avoided the limelight – it’s said he’d sneak into his study when collections were being presented in the salon to start work on the next – the master of tailoring began to make a name for himself as an innovator in women’s fashion. Focusing on broader shoulders and new volumes, he developed a luxurious silhouette, often making the detailed backs of garments the star of his shows.
His work was described as equal to sculpture, architecture and furniture in its precision and allure. Despite all this, the maven closed his Paris maison in 1968, before passing away four years later aged 77. The fashion house remained silent for almost two decades, before a new wave of designers were employed, in quick succession, to transport the brand into the 21st century.
1987-1992: After the family company known as The Bogart Group acquired the rights to Balenciaga, Michel Goma was put in charge to design colourful ready-to-wear collections. He fancied shorter hems, but not so short they were deemed ‘boring’, or very long skirts – and he also found a niche in the chemise.
1992-1997: The noted interior decorator and designer took on Balenciaga’s original semi-tailored look to elevate the house back to high-fashion status during his tenure as creative director. Until, that was, he was dismissed when the audience walked out on his show in 1997 due to its punishingly loud live soundtrack by electronic band Add N to (X).
1997-2012: He’s now the creative director of Louis Vuitton, but not so long ago Ghesquière was plucked from seeming obscurity to quickly fill the role vacated by Thimister. His debut collection for Balenciaga put the young designer on the fashion map – a modest, mostly black collection that nonetheless showed his genius for silhouette, much like the man who began it all. He went on to master curved lines artistically combined with the trends of the 1990s, such as spaghetti-strap dresses and vibrant colour, creating it-girls of those who chose to wear his designs, as well as the it-bag, the Lariat. One of the most influential fashion voices of the 2000s, his gladiator boots and hyper-floral prints are now part of the house’s legacy.
2012-2015: In the mere three years Wang worked for the company, all while juggling his own eponymous label, the designer’s time was particularly notable for the homage paid to the house’s founder. Cocoon coats, peplums and bubble skirts were referenced yet updated with a sporty American twist, including mesh details and exposed zips. Continuing the brand’s new era of celebrity dressing, Wang made sure his dresses were worn on red carpets by a cluster of stars from the refined Julianne Moore to the adventurous Lady Gaga. His acid yellow coat was a standout moment.
2015-present: Having fled his war-torn homeland of Georgia, Gvasalia has much in common with Mr Balenciaga. He fuses his own history and love of street culture with the brand’s penchant for draping and broader shoulders that showcase the female form. Tongue-in-cheek pop culture references – including a mountain of graffiti used as the set of his latest show – along with a sportswear aesthetic, reinvent the brand once more.