Childhood & Early Life
Cristóbal Balenciaga was born on 21 January 1895, in the town of Getaria, in Spain’s Gipuzkoa province. His mother, Maria Martina Eizaguirre Embil, was a seamstress and father, José Balenciaga Basurto. was a fisherman, who passed away when Balenciaga was quite young. He had two elder siblings, sister Maria Agustina and brother Juan Martin.
After his father died, Cristóbal Balenciaga would spend most of his time with his mother and watching her work, was his first introduction to fashion.
When Cristóbal Balenciaga was twelve-years-old, Marquess2 de Casa Torres, a noblewoman, who was a client of his mother, noticed his fascination towards women clothing and provided him with the opportunity to get formal training, working as a tailor’s apprentice in Madrid.
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At the age of 22, Cristóbal Balenciaga opened his first boutique under his mother’s name, ‘Eisa’, in San Sebastián, Spain and registered his eponymous brand. He expanded the business by opening branches in Barcelona and Madrid.
His clients during this time included the Spanish Royal family, and he often travelled to Paris to study the work of great designers, and try to imbibe the knowledge in his creations back home.
He designed garments like the kimono shaped coat with ermine fur on the cuffs and collars, and reproduced the multi-layered Lanvin dress with a yoke in silk-tulle, in 1927.
He worked on improving his craft and cater to his client’s special requirements by coming up with unique creations that were in on trend with the current fashion magazines, like the wedding dress designed for Carmen Alústiza and the evening coat with the balloon sleeves, in 1933.
Cristóbal Balenciaga was forced to shut shop and move to Paris when the Spanish Civil War started in 1936 and he opened the ‘Balenciaga’ store at 10 Avenue George V in August 1937.
His first Parisian collection was an immediate success establishing him as one of the best couturiers of the time, and earning the House of Balenciaga the reputation for being an expensive yet exclusive boutique.
He imparted his knowledge by teaching and inspiring great designers like Emanuel Ungaro, Oscar de la Renta, Mila Schön, Hubert de Givenchy and André Courrèges.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Balenciaga reigned supreme, his creations were iconic, and considered to be masterpieces of haute couture, attracting dignitaries, socialites, actresses, designers and an endless list of high-profile clients. Some of these included Aline Griffith, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, Anita Ekberg, Mona Bismarck, and Duchess Marella Agnelli.
Cristóbal Balenciaga created some of the most popular dresses, coats, tunics, and evening wear that were simple, elegant, yet reflected a genius technique that makes them a relevant point of study even today.
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In the late 1950s, irritated by the blatant copying of his designs, Balenciaga started launching his collection a month after the official showcase dates, in order to ensure the integrity of his designs was not compromised.
In the 1960s, he worked as a costume and wardrobe designer for several movies like ‘Pecado de amor’, ‘The Daughters of Helena’, ‘Prohibido enamorarse’, and ‘Testament of Orpheus’.
He created the wedding ensemble for the Belgian Queen Fabiola, when she was getting married to King Baudouin I.
Balenciaga retired and closed his stores in Paris in the year 1968. However, the brand was later revived by his ardent followers and is presently owned by the Kering Group.
Cristóbal Balenciaga’s designs were popular for their aesthetics, fine embroideries, exceptional structures and out-of-the-ordinary craftsmanship. One of the game-changers he designed was the semi-fitted look of the 1952 dress which had a tailored sleek front, while the back was full and billowing.
He created the ‘Sack Dress’ in 1957, which was a loose and comfortable dress without a clinched waist, totally revolutionising the shape of women’s fashion
Then came the ‘Baby Doll’ dress in 1958, which was frilly, carefree and allowed the wearer a freedom of motion that was unknown during those times.
Awards & Achievements
Cristóbal Balenciaga received the Chevalier or the Knight title in the Legion of Honour, which is the highest order of merit awarded by France.
He was named Commander by the Spanish Civil Order of Isabella the Catholic, which is a recognition given by the Spanish monarch for services for the country.
Spanish Queen Sofia, inaugurated the Balenciaga Museum in 2011, in his hometown Getaria which graces more than 1200 ensembles designed by Balenciaga.
Family & Personal Life
Cristóbal Balenciaga was gay and was known to have several lovers during his youth. However, his longest relationship was with his partner Vladzio Jaworowski d’Attainville, a milliner, in Paris, although the couple never got married. Balenciaga was a private person and wasn’t vocal about his sexuality.
Attainville’s death in 1948 was a very traumatic experience for Balenciaga, as he was heart-broken and even considered shutting down the business altogether, but, he carried on and engrossed himself in his work.
He died due to a heart attack on the 23rd of March 1972, at the age of 77, in Spain and is buried in the Getaria cemetery.