De Young Museum: Balenciaga and Spain


Who is Cristobal Balenciaga:

Balenciaga was a sculptor of shape, a painter of color and an architect of design. Christian Dior called Balenciaga "The Master of Us All"; a reference to his technical mastery as a designer. Balenciaga came from humble origins, yet he ascended to the very top of the fashion world.

He was born in 1895 in a medieval fishing town in Guetaria on the Basque region of Spain. Balenciaga was only 11 when his father died. This tragic loss turned out to be the catalyst for Balenciaga's remarkable career. He opened his first couture house in San Sebastian in 1919. The city catered to the needs of Spain's aristocrats and was famous for its dressmaking establishments.

Balenciaga established his name and reputation as a tailor, dressmaker and designer of distinction. His designs were dazzling and revolutionary and he expanded to include houses in Madrid and Barcelona. Eventually the Spanish civil war forced him to flee and he reestablished himself in Paris, where he opened his couture house in 1937.

Balenciaga's brilliant career continued to flourish. His commitment to rigorous work and detailed craftsmanship was evident throughout his career and made him a master of his craft.

Appreciation of beauty:

Balenciaga's genius for design was innate and was matched only by his profound appreciation for beauty. Coco Channel called him "the only couturier who could tailor a suit, who could create a dress from beginning to end. The others are purely draughtsman." Balenciaga was a master innovator in the use of fabrics. His skill for creating shapes and illusions to flatter the female body, set him apart from the rest.

His work was perfection. However, he did not achieve perfection alone. Balenciaga had a very dedicated and close-knit team. Even with his success, Balenciaga was a private man who shied away from the public eye and shunned public attention.

Design influences:

There were certain popular elements of Spanish life and culture that strongly influenced Balenciaga's designs. Balenciaga saw beauty in the art of flamenco dance and the spirit of the bull fight. Another great source of inspiration was the strong catholic background of his youth.

Spanish Catholicism from the early 20th century is something that finds resonance in his work. Spanish art also had a dramatic impact on Balenciaga's work. In his 1939 collection he produced a whole section of infanta dresses that were closely based on Diego Velazquez extraordinary paintings of the Spanish infantas.

Francisco de Goya also shows prominence in Balenciaga's work with the use of black lace, soft pinks and ivories. The use of lace evokes Goya's aristocratic sitters of the late 18th century.

The touch of Spanish regional dresses:

Many of Balenciaga's designs were inspired by Spanish regional dress. The idea of transformational costume, something that can be worn as a skirt or a cape, echoes in Balenciaga's work. Spanish influence is seen throughout his collections and is a reflection of his nostalgia for his homeland.

Cristobal Balenciaga decided to bring his remarkable career to a close in 1968, but his legend lives on. Balenciaga's designs are finding their way to San Francisco.

Balenciaga and Spain
de Young Museum
March 26-July 4, 2011
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, CA 94118

Written and produced by Janel Andronico

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