Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  January 27, 2020

Balenciaga’s Return to Haute Couture

by Abigail King

‘Haute couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.’  - Christian Dior (1).

During Cristóbal Balenciaga’s career he became known as ‘The King of Fashion’, a master of fabric, cut and style. Inspired by his Spanish heritage, he led his contemporaries with his designs and brought them to life through his unparalleled tailoring abilities. His work challenged the sartorial trends of the time with voluminous dresses and coats which seemingly defied the laws of gravity with their effortless drapes and intricate structures. 

A number of his pieces completely rejected the popular 1950s silhouette with its focus on tiny waists, full hips and feminine curves. In 1957, he introduced the ‘sack dress’ – a straight up and down shift dress that eradicated any suggestion of the waist – and shocked the fashion world, who were much in love with Dior’s ‘New Look’. These pieces became some of his most iconic work and he refined and reworked them throughout his life (2).  Although his work was increasingly popular, Balenciaga closed his house in 1968, a move that was unexpected and deeply affected his customers, Mona von Bismarck supposedly remained in her room for three whole days upon hearing the news, his contemporaries and the press. This closure was followed four years later by his death, aged 77. His passing was reported all over the world. In the March 1972 edition of Women's Wear Daily the headline read ‘The King is Dead.’ the fashion world mourned a great loss but although ‘Cristóbal Balenciaga, the father of Contemporary fashion, is dead, … his influence remains.’(3). 

Many of his designs and silhouettes shaped the popular fashions of the era. Considered by the public and his contemporaries, including Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Oscar de la Renta as ‘the master’ of haute couture, despite never being a member of the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture Parisienne as he defiantly resisted the strict rules and guidelines of the association.  Balenciaga’s innovative and unique designs left a lasting impression on dress history and have recently been celebrated in many exhibitions around the world, including Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum (May 2017 to February 2018). This exhibition uncovered some of the secrets of Balenciaga’s haute couture garments, offering visitors a look at x-ray images of dresses, revealing the underpinnings that effortlessly supported his elegant designs and showcasing over 100 pieces crafted by Balenciaga himself, his protégées and other designers working in his style (4).

After Balenciaga’s death the house of Balenciaga was reopened in 1986 when Jacques Bogart acquired the rights to the house. Instead of picking up where Balenciaga had left off, the company chose to follow the new prêt-à-porter system, the basis of our contemporary fashion industry. Building up the brands reputation for leading the fashion pack with seasonal shows of ready-to-wear garments, starting with ‘Le Dix’ which was led by the first newly appointed Creative Director, Michel Goma. It was not until 1992 that Josephus Thimister brought high fashion back to the brands portfolio. However, since the atelier doors were closed by Cristóbal Balenciaga in 1968, the house has not created haute couture in 52 years. During each of its Creative Directors’ tenure, the brand has gone from strength to strength, becoming a go to for actors, musicians, celebrities and fashion editors. Whilst running the ready-to-wear line the brand created accessories to complement its collections, namely the Lariat which became the ‘It’ bag of the early 2000s and still holds great commercial power today (5).

This year current Artistic Director, Demna Gvasalia, announced the return of Balenciaga haute couture. In his statement, Gvasalia, recognised the history of couture as the ‘very foundation of this house’ referencing Balenciaga’s notable place in the history of haute couture and his lasting influence on contemporary fashion (6). Since taking over the house, Gvasalia has also returned again and again to the house’s archives finding inspiration in some of Balenciaga’s original pieces. To mark the house’s 100th anniversary Gvasalia recreated nine couture pieces inspired by Balenciaga’s tailoring and pattern cutting and reworked these designs using contemporary techniques with great success. This process offered clients a glimpse into what Gvasalia may offer by way of a haute couture collection. His decision to reopen the atelier not only shows his awareness of the brand’s history but also shows that he understands the changes currently happening within the fashion industry and consumer behaviour. 

In the current fashion system, the emphasis is on ready-to-wear, fast fashion and this system places quantity over quality in order to quickly respond to changes in trends and demand. As customers can have their wants immediately sated through online shopping, the ubiquitous nature of social media and 52 yearly fashion cycles, brands have had to evolve to stay relevant. Yet in a time of great excess and waste our cultural focus is changing, sustainability is becoming a huge issue, especially within the fashion industry and designers and brands are searching for sustainable alternatives for materials, creative processes and business structures. 

The decision to revive Balenciaga haute couture reflects the growing demand for fashion that emphasises craftmanship and luxury design. Cedric Charbit, President and CEO of Balenciaga similarly recognises how the return to couture matches consumers desire for more sustainable fashion; as clients look for pieces that celebrate craftsmanship and that they will keep and cherish forever (7). The very nature of haute couture, painstakingly made by hand in ateliers in Paris, is sustainable, very few pieces are made and those that are, are made to measure for specific clients. The garments are truly one of a kind and highlights the best of a house’s creative abilities.

The first Balenciaga couture collection will be presented in July 2020 and will hopefully embody Gvasalia’s creative aim of reuniting the Balenciaga brand with its founder’s deep understanding of tailoring, colour and style.
                                                                                                                                        
References 
1. Victoria and Albert Museum. (2017). V&A · Introducing Cristóbal Balenciaga. [online] Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/introducing-cristobal-balenciaga [Accessed 15 Jan. 2020].
2. Victoria and Albert Museum. (2017). V&A · Introducing Cristóbal Balenciaga. [online] Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/introducing-cristobal-balenciaga [Accessed 15 Jan. 2020].
3. Cristobal Balenciaga. (1972). Women’s Wear Daily, Vol. 124, Iss. 60.
4. Victoria and Albert Museum. (2020). V&A · Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion. [online] Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/balenciaga-shaping-fashion [Accessed 15 Jan. 2020].
5. Lerma, M. (2019). The Lariat How The Balenciaga 'It' Bag Changed Fashion. [online] Heroine. Available at: https://www.heroine.com/the-editorial/balenciaga-lariat-history [Accessed 16 Jan. 2020].
6. Phelps, N. (2020). Exclusive: Balenciaga Is Returning to Haute Couture. [online] Vogue. Available at: https://www.vogue.com/article/balenciaga-returns-to-haute-couture [Accessed 16 Jan. 2020].
7. Phelps, N. (2020). Exclusive: Balenciaga Is Returning to Haute Couture. [online] Vogue. Available at: https://www.vogue.com/article/balenciaga-returns-to-haute-couture [Accessed 16 Jan. 2020].

  • Dress, silk, 1951. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993.393.1.