The king is dead. When Women's Wear Daily ran this headline in March 1972 no one in the fashion world would have had any doubt as to whom it referred. There was only one king of couture, the one whom Christian Dior called 'the master of us all', while Coco Chanel said he alone was 'a couturier in the truest sense of the word… The others are simply fashion designers.' Vogue summed it up in 1962: 'Almost since the first day he launched his salon in 1937 he has been acclaimed as the great leader in fashion; what Balenciaga does today, other designers will do tomorrow, or next year, by which time he will have moved on again.'
Cristóbal Balenciaga's impact on fashion has been profound. Yet to the world at large he remains an enigma. He is not associated with a signature outfit, like Coco Chanel, nor with a pivotal moment, like Christian Dior and the New Look of 1947, nor a cultural phenomenon like Vivienne Westwood and punk. From the moment he opened his Paris house, his clothes struck a note of simplicity that at times had a regal presence, at others a graphic grace. He reshaped women's silhouette in the 1950s, so that clothes we think of as typical of that decade are mostly dilutions of his work. In the 1960s his masterpieces of sculptural purity lifted his work into the arena of art. His cut was legendary. Nothing fitted the body with the supple ease of a Balenciaga suit, and once women had worn his clothes they were often unwilling to wear anything else.
No one is to blame for the mystery that surrounds him more than Balenciaga himself. Unlike Dior, who was an early adopter of hype, or Chanel, who constantly made pithy pronouncements, he shunned publicity, and gave only one full interview in his life. He was rarely seen, prompting exasperated journalists to speculate as to whether he actually existed. A silence hangs over him as it hung over his couture establishment at 10 avenue Georges V, where a monastic atmosphere prevailed.
Bettina Ballard, a young Vogue fashion editor, was one of the first to meet him, when he arrived in Paris in 1937. In a chapter of her autobiography entitled 'The Secret World of Cristóbal Balenciaga' she describes him almost as if he were a swatch of textile: 'A gentle-voiced Spaniard with fine pale skin the texture and colour of eggshells and dark hair that lay thick and glistening in wavy layers on his well-shaped head. His voice was like feathers…'
Prudence Glyn of The Times, to whom he granted his only interview, in 1971, wrote, 'In post-war fashion, Dior became a household word through the influence of the New Look, but for the purists there was only one proper direction in which to bow, Cristóbal Balenciaga.' Glyn reported that his dislike of publicity was in no way caused by the feeling that he was too grand to bother, saying, 'It is caused, he told me passionately, by the absolute impossibility he finds of explaining his metier to anyone.'
For many, a Balenciaga show was the closest fashion gets to a religious experience. As the Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland put it, 'One fainted. It was possible to blow up and die. I remember at one show in the early 1960s… Audrey Hepburn turned to me and asked why I wasn't frothing at the mouth at what I was seeing. I told her I was trying to act calm and detached because, after all, I was a member of the press. Across the way Gloria Guinness was sliding out of her chair on to the floor. Everyone was going up in foam and thunder.' For the journalist Ernestine Carter it was less like a Pentecostal prayer meeting and more like 'an audience with the Pope'. She had a cooler take on the experience. 'There was never any of the excited chatter that preceded the press showings of the Dior collection… At Balenciaga the silence was imposed by the small lift, like a padded cell, which held only four people at a time if one of them was slim. After surviving the suspicious vetting of Mesdames Renée and Véra, one was shown to one's seat, where one chatted with one's neighbours in church whispers. Not for Balenciaga, as for Dior, young alluring mannequins. His were often middle-aged (like his clients) and never pretty… They were not arrogant; they were just incredibly and unsmilingly detached. No amount of applause brought a change of expression. The collection was presented; take it or leave it. Most took it.'
Much discussion was given to the house models, known as the 'monsters'. While some of them specialised in the 'disagreeable air' that Balenciaga said a truly distinguished woman always has, others were striking. Balenciaga did not infantilise women with his clothes, nor did he want models to look like sex kittens. You can imagine Garbo in Balenciaga (she was a client), but not Bardot. The greatest 'monster' of them all was Colette, 'with her Dracula walk, her big head low like a bull ready to charge, her shoulders hunched down, her arms swinging low…' as Ballard remembered her. This was the forerunner of the classic 1950s model pose: chest caved-in and hipbones jutting forward. Size zero would have been a loose fit on Colette, but some of his other mannequins were women of substance, for models at least. 'Mr Balenciaga likes a little stomach,' one of his fitters famously said.
The models reflected the different body types of his clients and showed that anyone could look good in his clothes. He felt strongly about them. He was the only couturier in Paris to insist that magazines used his house models for shoots. Frustrated editors coped by showing his dresses from the back, or simply chopping the models' heads off at the top of the page. Despite Carter's assertion that Balenciaga's clientele was mostly middle-aged, he dressed women of all ages and, sometimes, several generations of one family. In any case, in the 1940s and 1950s the ideal woman was middle-aged, or almost, with an artifice and attention to detail about her that nowadays would seem camp. Instead of older women trying to act younger, as they do today, young women tried to act older, more worldly.
Balenciaga valued those who knew what suited them. Clients who wanted to order everything were disapproved of, although the heiress Barbara Hutton ordered 19 dresses, six suits, three coats and a negligée from one collection and was not shown the door. In 1963 Countess von Bismarck outdid Hutton when she bought 88 outfits, following this with a total of 140 items over the next two years. An outfit typically took three fittings before it was signed off, but even assuming she would have needed only one per outfit with so many seamstresses au fait with every inch of her body, this represents a significant investment of time. When Balenciaga retired, the oil heiress and socialite Claudia Heard de Osborne wrote in a letter, 'With Balenciaga finished, I've no work here, as I am usually fitted almost daily.'
Dressing at Balenciaga also represented a considerable investment of money. In 1954 couture clients paid about £130 for a wool suit at Balenciaga. Select department stores paid £270 for the same suit, and the right to copy a limited number and to use his name on their labels, often in phrases such as inspired by balenciaga. He was known to be the most expensive couturier in Paris. Elisabeth de Gramont's black velvet gown resplendent with silver embroidery cost £815 in 1952, and Barbara Hutton was said to have paid £5,376 for the heavily encrusted Mozart outfit she ordered for the Beistegui 18th-century ball. To put it in context, the average annual income for British men in 1954 was £667 (and significantly less for women).
Many of Balenciaga's clients were the leading taste-makers of the day. Mona Harrison-Williams, later Countess von Bismarck, was voted 'best-dressed woman in the world' the first time it was awarded in the 1930s. Described by Beaton as a 'rock-crystal goddess', she dressed exclusively at Balenciaga, right down to her gardening shorts. Then there were the Duchess of Windsor, Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy (the president balked at the bills), Helena Rubinstein (a prodigious client), Bunny Mellon (ditto), Mrs William Randolph Hearst, Princess Lee Radziwill and the heiress Doris Duke (Balenciaga admired her broad shoulders). Claudia Heard de Osborne, who kept a suite at the Paris Ritz just for her couture, asked to be buried in Balenciaga. To this small sample of society clients add film stars such as Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall. Those on a budget could always slip across the border to his Spanish couture house, Eisa, which quietly sold many of the more conservative outfits for about half the price.
Balenciaga did not appear at the openings of his collections. Nor did clients see him for fittings as a rule. He watched the shows from the doorway to the ateliers, peeking through a small hole in the curtains. By staying backstage he could concentrate on what he loved - the work - and avoid the chitchat and nonsense side of fashion. 'Don't waste yourself in society,' he told Gustave Zumsteg of Abraham, his favourite fabric house. Actually encountering this myth in the flesh could put one off balance. Lunching with him one day at Le Grand Véfour, Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper's Bazaar, spotted the actress Paulette Goddard and the writer Anita Loos at a nearby table. Knowing they admired his clothes, she beckoned them over; 'without a moment's hesitation, without even glancing at each other, both women curtsied to Balenciaga as Englishwomen curtsey to royalty.'
He may have been a commanding figure, but Sonsoles Díez de Rivera recalled that Balenciaga was 'serious but he had the joy of life.' De Rivera's mother, the Marquesa de Llanzol, was one of his most devoted clients. She had met him when she asked her vendeuse (sales assistant) for a discount because she was pregnant and wouldn't be able to wear her purchase for long. The answer was a polite no. But, spotting Balenciaga in the corridor, the Marquesa ran up and explained her predicament. 'Why should I give you a discount?' he said. 'I'm not responsible for your condition.' At which they both burst out laughing. They became good friends.
Nevertheless, the shopping experience at 10 avenue Georges V could be daunting. On the ground floor was a boutique, the antechamber to the couture house proper. No clothes were sold in it, only bags, gloves, perfumes and, Vogue added, 'really divine jewellery'. A commissionaire led couture clients to a lift upholstered in red Córdoba leather. This took you directly to the third-floor salon. As you crossed the hallway the creaky parquet alerted Mme Véra to your presence even before you had rung the doorbell. She sat, stout and bespectacled, at a desk in front of a folding screen, and required that you hand over identification as if you were about to cross a border - as, in a way, you were. If you passed muster, you stepped behind the screen into a corridor. On one side were mirrored doors that led to the fitting rooms, and on the other, open doorways on to the salon with its row of windows overlooking the avenue.
The vendeuses, eight in all, sat at desks on either side of the corridor with their assistants round them. They were presided over by Mlle Renée, the directrice of the house, or as some would have it the mother superior. It was she who would rip up the requests for samples from magazines, giving them instead two outfits not usually of their choosing. A client who asked to bring a friend curious to see the show was met with a verbal slap from Mlle Renée: 'Curious women are not welcome here.' Under her command, the house ran with military efficiency from the end of the war until it closed in 1968.
The best vendeuse was Mme Florette, the first person Balenciaga hired in 1937, who also stayed until the house closed. A picture shows her smiling broadly in pearls and a black dress, surrounded by her three assistants not one of whom looks a day under 60. Short and doughty matrons, each of them wears a black dress of their own choosing from the current collection, a half-gift - they had to pay for the fabric. As was the general practice, vendeuses were not salaried but got a commission on what they sold, out of which they paid their own assistants.
Couture houses presented their collection to private clients daily in the season, and Balenciaga was no exception. At first the clients lounged on white leather-upholstered chairs and sofas, and later, as the Balenciaga cult grew, sat on close-ranked Napoleon III gilt chairs. You could smoke throughout, tapping your ash into one of the ashtrays on gilt stands that marked out the area for the passages in a kind of colonnade. At 3pm the models would glide in, their eyes fixed on the beyond like visitants passing through from another world. Balenciaga personally taught them never to make eye contact, pirouette or smile. Attention must always be on the clothes. The shows typically lasted for an hour or more as up to 200 outfits passed back and forth. The only sounds were the swoosh of dress trains and the press of feet on the grey carpet. Dress numbers or names were not called out as at other houses; instead the models held numbered cards. Balenciaga never named his clothes or collections. If you were interested in a dress, you jotted its number down in a little notebook provided for the purpose.
Afterwards, you made an appointment with your vendeuse or, if you wanted to buy right away, were led to a fitting room. When you had chosen your outfits, you signed three copies of the order form: one for yourself, one for the vendeuse and a third for accounts. From then on, you were assigned to a premier d'atelier or 'workroom head'. Only these most experienced tailors and dressmakers conducted fittings.
Twice a year the new collections were presented to professional buyers and journalists, as well as private clients. These were far more intense events, when the salon was crammed with up to 90 people. 'Prolonged applause brought to a close the two hour presentation of the Balenciaga collection,' began a newspaper report on a typical show.
It's hard to imagine now how an audience could remain spellbound during such a two-hour event, without the theatrics that accompany 21st-century fashion shows. The store buyers were invited to the first shows. Next came the couture clients, and after them, the press. Taking photographs and sketching were forbidden, which was hard on journalists. A dim view was also taken of criticism, even jokes. Eugenia Sheppard of the Herald Tribune dubbed Balenciaga the 'Big Daddy of the Haute Couture' and was promptly barred for several seasons.
The clothes were marvellous to wear. Celia Bertin wrote, 'Women who wear his tailored suits seem to have them moulded on to their bodies... while leaving them complete freedom of movement.' Balenciaga was always first a master tailor. His silhouettes may have been faultless but, wrote Mary Blume, 'They were made for a living, moving, avid body. They were voluptuous and grand.'
The grandeur of the evening dresses is immediately apparent. They might be simple sheaths, offset with boleros bristling with beading. Or they might swell from the waist in a float of taffeta in which 'women move as swans across a pond', as Vreeland saw it. Even when they were all lace froth and pink ruching they were still, irreproachably, grand. Their voluptuousness was more subtle, radiating first from how the clothes felt on the wearer. Women talked of how the dresses eddied and flowed, perhaps referring to a signature cut where the hem was raised in front and swooped down at the back, a feature adapted from flamenco costume. Pauline de Rothschild compared them to sails, hung from a precise point in order to give with the pressure of the air. 'Legs moved easily, the front of the long skirts running a little faster ahead than one's walk.' They came with a slip that hugged the body while the dress itself was marginally larger. 'When the wearer moved, a current of air circulated between the layers, causing the dress alternately to float and caress the body,' Hamish Bowles, Vogue's editor-at-large, has noted. This caress and current of air must have given a delicious feeling to the wearing of a Balenciaga.
Like Chanel, Balenciaga believed clothes should not hamper the body. His clothes became easier and easier to engage with, until by the mid-1950s many could be slipped on and off over the head. He simplified constantly, shrugging back the collars of jackets an inch or so from the neck, 'allowing women and their pearls to breathe,' as Gloria Guinness put it. This cut showed off the swan-like necks of 1950s models, but it also gave an illusion of length to those who were far from swan, such as Carmel Snow, who claimed he created the stand-away collar for her, 'because I have no neck'. He sliced jackets and coats above the wrist at various lengths - seven-eighths, three-quarters - providing further ease of movement, and allowing women to show off their jewellery; indeed these became known as bracelet sleeves.
Many of his clients, remembering their Balenciagas, spoke of 'how easy and right they felt, as nothing has felt since,' in the words of Mary Blume. 'They were also curiously demanding. They required a bearing… In return, they conferred assurance.' One begins to see how addictive his clothes must have been, with their attunement to the slightest needs of the body, their secret eroticism, their endowing of confidence and distinction. All this the wearer enjoyed on the inside, while on the outside she was bodied forth by legendary tailoring 'which sculpts and remodels the body of the wearer,' said Celia Bertin, 'rendering her at once completely herself and ever so slightly transfigured.' Hubert de Givenchy gave Vogue a story of Balenciaga's ability to transfigure: 'I remember one day we were looking at the dummies of some of his clients; one was the shape of an old woman, her back was stooped with rounded shoulders and she had a big stomach and hips. While I watched, Balenciaga took a piece of muslin, pinned it to the dummy, and began to work with it. By seaming and cutting on the bias of the fabric he gradually made the stooped dummy straighten, the round hips and stomach disappear. The proportions became almost perfect. It was like a miracle.'
It is no wonder that the grandes dames of couture set up a lamentation when he suddenly shut up shop in 1968. Who else could deliver such purity of line together with this sensuous ease, no matter what your shape? Diana Vreeland was staying with Mona Bismarck when the news came. 'Consuelo Crespi telephoned me from Rome saying it had just come over the radio that Balenciaga had closed his doors for ever that afternoon, and that he'd never open them again. Mona didn't come out of her room for three days. I mean, she went into a complete… I mean, it was the end of a certain part of her life!'