Balenciaga – luxury rebellion
The luxury fashion house founded by Cristóbal Balenciaga in 1917 is truly triumphant nowadays. The Spanish designer managed to revolutionise fashion and introduce innovations which no one before him had dared to try, and his philosophy continues to inspire generations of successors of his idea.
Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre was born in 1895 in Getaria, a small fishing village in Basque country in Spain. From an early age he used to spend hours accompanying his mother, a dressmaker, thus furtively learning the ropes of the trade that was to bring him fame and recognition in the future. He was still a teenager, when the prominent Marchioness of Casa Torres became his patron and regular customer. It was she who sent him to Madrid for a formal dressmaking training – and proudly wore its “results”. Balenciaga’s extremely brilliant success in his home country came early; he was not even 25 when he opened branches of his boutique in Madrid, Barcelona and the fashionable seaside resort of San Sebastián. His designs quickly conquered the hearts of the most important recipients he could have ever dreamed of: the royal family and the aristocracy. But when the Spanish Civil War forced him to close his boutiques, Balenciaga moved his activity to Paris, the world’s undisputed fashion capital, where he joined the pantheon of celebrities such as Coco Chanel or Elsa Schiaparelli.
In August 1937, Cristóbal Balenciaga organised his first fashion show, held at his own atelier in Avenue George V. He presented there a collection much influenced by the Spanish Renaissance art. And anyway, during his entire career Balenciaga eagerly worked on and redefined many historical styles. His “Infanta” dress was inspired by costumes of young Spanish princesses depicted in the court paintings by Diego Velazquez, while a short, richly decorated lightweight jacket, traditionally worn by matadors in the ring, gave form to most of his evening ensembles. His home country’s culture, aesthetics, but most of all art were the source of constant inspiration for the designer. In Paris, Balenciaga’s was almost immediately successful. Within two years the French press hailed him as a revolutionary and his designs attracted great interest. Rumour has it that some American fashion lovers risked their safety or even life, travelling to Europe during World War II to see ensembles designed by him.
Why all this buzz around the designer? Cristóbal Balenciaga introduced smooth and straight lines and unprecedented silhouettes into the fashion. He constantly explored the relationship between garment and body and was not afraid to manipulate it: he widened shoulders, hid the waist, applied asymmetrical cuts or added volume in the least expected sections of an outfit – the fashion created by him was avant-garde to the utmost. One of his most popular creations was the “square coat” with short sleeves sewn from the same piece of fabric as the body. The Spanish couturier showed himself also as an innovator as regards the use of fabrics: instead of the then fashionable soft textiles he preferred strong and heavy materials on which he created elaborated embroidery, playing with design principles. From all accounts, he had never learned to sketch well – and so he worked directly on the “three-dimensional” matter, forming it more like a sculpture than a drawing.
Balenciaga challenged standards not only in fashion, but in his private life as well; he was homosexual, having as his long-term life partner an aristocrat of Polish origin, Władzio Jaworowski d’Attainville. The designer’s biographer Mary Blume describes his character as difficult and complex; Cristóbal was taciturn and introverted, sometimes even conceited and arrogant. In his life he gave only one interview – he considered that his designs, refined in every detail, were to speak for themselves. This unapproachability only fuelled the aura of mystery around him, arouse curiosity and provoked questions. Apparently, his motto was the statement that “a good fashion designer had to be an architect for the patterns, a sculptor for the shape, a painter for the colour, a musician for the harmony, and a philosopher for the temperance” – undoubtedly, analogies with the world of art and broadly defined humanities were significant to him.
In 1968, Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his fashion house; it was reopened no sooner than in 1986, some time after his death – and with a completely new face.
Today, the brand is extremely popular around the globe, even though it is no longer associated with the Haute Couture fashion but rather with an avant-garde streetwear. Surely most of us knows Balenciaga for its flagship footwear, fondly referred to as “the world’s ugliest shoes”. Despite the fact that they are heavy, massive and even uncomfortable, thousands of fans do not hesitate to spend a small fortune on this already iconic model.
Several people contributed to this change of the brand image – but we will take a closer look at the present artistic director of the Balenciaga fashion house. Since 2015, this position has been held by Georgian fashion designer Demna Gvasalia (known also as the founder of the “rebellious” brand Vetements) who revives the brand founder’s ideas and unconventional thinking, however giving them decidedly modern, sometimes even futuristic traits. Gvasalia, considered an eccentric, claims that his philosophy consists in the “deconstruction of creation” – in a truly postmodern spirit, he borrows, quotes, mixes and blends fashion influences from different eras and culture areas. His strategy is often described even as the “trolling” of the fashion world – let’s just mention the famous cooperation with the jeered at slide brand Crocs or successful promotion of IKEA’s blue bag as the most desired accessory. Still, this ironic and irreverent language of communication hits home with the (post-)Millennial generation. Contemporary Balenciaga, led by Gvasalia, knowingly introduces into its collections a style that could be described as programmatically anti-aesthetic, deliberately ignoring current trends. This approach builds the image of the brand as independent, alternative, fresh – and thus luxury.
Balenciaga’s collections are now much like works of contemporary art – so it comes as no surprise that the link between the brand and the art world is unbreakable. Ever since Demna Gvasalia took the helm of the company, his favourite model, almost the main muse, has been painter Eliza Douglas. Other brand’s models have been for instance performer Antti Kettunen, architect Neda Brady or collector and art market expert Karen Boros. And so Balenciaga seems to go a step further in its understanding of art branding – not only does it create in collaboration with the art world, but above all, it creates for it.
Almost each Balenciaga’s collection, fashion show, lookbook, advertising campaign or even post on Instagram bear at least a trace of renowned artists’ activity. Last year the brand announced a project drawing on video art straight from the top contemporary art galleries. The Loops series consisted of looped animations complemented by electronic music, as a whole offering the audience a psychedelic, surrealistic climate. The project was meant to refer to the common experience, known to almost all of us, of getting “stuck” on YouTube in the whirlwind of videos automatically played in succession, almost like in an endless trance. Each month different artists were invited to create their “loop”, among them Max Guther, Max de Waard, Claudia Maté or Nicolas Sassoon.
Also the fact that Balenciaga is present at prestigious art fairs should not surprise anyone. During Art Basel in 2019 the brand presented a sofa made by Russian artist and architect Harry Nuriev. This cooperation was a testament not only to the brand’s unconventional activities, but also to its environmental awareness and sensitivity. Nuriev created a couch covered with transparent vinyl under which damaged (or otherwise unsaleable) clothes from Balenciaga’s previous collections could be seen. The sofa’s inside resembles a colourful kaleidoscope – from a distance you may even get an impression that it is just a pile of clothes thrown on top of it. Nuriev claims that he has always been enchanted with the view of the famous “Venus” by Pistoletto, reflecting chaos and beauty at the same time.
The artist finds his greatest inspiration in nostalgia and mechanisms of memory. Nuriev got his idea for the sofa design from his family house in Caucasus, where he had had his favourite “ugly” worn out couch. According to the artist, not only physical items can be recycled; a good material for reprocessing may also be a pattern, shape, idea – much more abstract values. This way of thinking seems to perfectly blend into Balenciaga’s philosophy.
Even though the clothes with the tag of the Balenciaga fashion house have undergone radical changes between 1917 and the present day, the brand’s rebellious and avant-garde spirit has remained the same throughout over a hundred years of its existence. This spirit is the very reason why the art world loves Balenciaga, and why the brand perceives artists not just as collaborators, but primarily as the most important recipients of its fashion collections.