Cristobal Balenciaga… Master of Style

Ruby-pearled tulle bolero, 1962 DR

For the past two seasons, the biggest trends to march down the catwalks from Paris to Hollywood have been elegant and sophisticated. It’s the kind of look inspired by Alfred Hitchcock divas like Kim Novak or Grace Kelly, more than a half century ago. Back then, the designers who epitomized French couture were Dior, Balmain and Givenchy. However, the man considered to be the master in this domain was Cristobal Balenciaga.

His style, grace and ingenious cutting techniques won over a generation of royals and socialites , who filled their closets with his regal creations. Balenciaga inspired other couture greats, such as Ungaro and Courrèges, attracting followers throughout his career and well beyond his death. This year, his life and works are the subject of not one, but two Paris exhibitions:  the Mona Bismarck Foundation’s  current show (on through May 20), and another at the Musée des Arts de la Mode (from July 6).

Though originally inspired by the Spanish Renaissance, Balenciaga is most renowned for his stark simplicity and streamlined silhouettes that contrasted with Dior’s opulent New Look collection. He loved the fluid lines created by jerseys draped over the body, and often played with waistlines in order to create special effects. An architect of fashion, he favored structured geometric shapes – along the lines of his signature spherical balloon jacket with a funnel collar, a cocoon coat that almost engulfed the wearer, as well as the sack dress and the chemise.

This was a form of fashion that suited any size or shape, because the outline of the garment had an identity of its own. As a result, the world’s best-attired style-setters opted for Balenciaga creations. He dressed sovereigns like royalty, while wearers of everyday copies of his work, seemed as well turned out as princesses.

The first exhibition features 40 dresses and ensembles created between 1955 and 1972, owned by Countess Mona Bismarck among other key clients. It provides the visitor with a rare and highly personal view of a bygone era. Photos of the wearer are displayed alongside  each gown. For instance, a pistachio silk faille  evening dress, with pearl, crystals and topaz beading over the bodice of its buttoned down front, and soft drapes streaming down its back, stands next to a portrait of Bismarck posing  for Cecil Beaton, in the splendor of her Paris home.

“Balenciaga not only created a style, but a technique as well. He was the architect of haute couture,” says the Hubert de Givenchy, himself  a fashion legend who, at the start of his career during the 1950s, regarded this acclaimed couturier as his mentor. Givenchy has served as curator for the Foundation’s  exhibition, lending parts of his own private collection, fixing the theme, and overseeing both the garment selection and the settings in which they are presented. “Bismarck and Balenciaga: Shared Perfection” pays tribute to these like-minded individuals,  who not only shared a profound 30-year friendship, but were perfectionists driven by a similar  conception of beauty and elegance.

Spanish-born,  Cristobal Balenciaga was a quiet man who kept to himself , and remained indifferent to the media. Relying on an astute sense of balance and form, he had an obsession for perfection. According to Hubert de Givenchy, he once asserted that “Everyone can learn the ABCs, but taste cannot be learnt. It develops slowly, and that’s the hardest part.”

A string of prestigious clients, ranging from Countesss Bismarck to the Duchess of Windsor, Pauline de Rothschild and Gloria Guinness, loved Balenciaga for his  picture-perfect attention to detail: collars falling back from the shoulders, giving their wearers a swan-like neck, three-quarter length sleeves that allowed them to flaunt their jewelry.

The highlight of the exhibition is a room housing  seven breathtaking wedding gowns complete with jewel-topped veils trailing  several yards behind. From an ivory duchess satin example trimmed with mink at the collar and the hips, seen on Queen Fabiola of Belgium,  to a silver embroidered number worn by the daughter of the Marquise de Llanzol, it is filled with noteworthy examples of Balenciaga at his apex.

At the Musée des Arts de la Mode, a second show documents Cristobal Balenciaga’s life, providing  the visitor with a broader vision of the man and legend, while defining his contribution  to the evolution of fashion.

Born in 1895 at Guetaria Spain, a small village near the French border, Balenciaga was the son of a seamstress, who taught him the bases of a profession he would later dominate, from the age of 10. After working as an intern in Madrid and San Sebastian, he quickly rose through the ranks to become the chief designer for the Royal Family, when only in his twenties. By 1933, he had opened two boutiques in Madrid, followed by a third in Barcelona in 1935. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 forced him to shut everything down, and move to London.

By August 1937, Balenciaga had enlisted the help of a few friends, who provided him with financial backing. After launching his house on avenue George V – at number 10, he presented a first Paris show. Private clients and major buyers raved about his skillful, passionate  approach, admiring his impeccably cut black dresses and audacious colors schemes. Throughout the Jackie Kennedy era, he was noted for his innovative use of rich materials. Often graced with ornate embroidery, slinky folds and sculpted drapes, his ’60s silhouettes had a life of their own. He conjured up ample swashbuckling coats contrasting sharply with simple streamlined dresses.

Toward the end of the 1960s, elegant silk gowns took a back seat to kicky Carnaby Street looks. In 1968, the house closed its doors, turning its discerning clientele  over to Monsieur de Givenchy. According to Givenchy, “when word got out about Balenciaga’s retirement, some of his clients began ordering huge numbers of his clothes, enough to last them the rest of their lives.” Though he passed away in 1972, this influential figure’s  œuvre lives on. Everything he designed and did continues to set the standards for anything deemed worthy of “haute couture.”

Cristobal Balenciaga Musée  des Arts de la Mode, July 6 to Jan 28, 2007, 105 rue de Rivoli, 1er