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Designer Diaries – Balenciaga and His Royal Clientele

Thank you to Iselen for reviewing this post and adding some great detail!

Cristóbal Balenciaga was born on January 21, 1895, in Guetaria, Spain. He was born to fashion, having assisted his seamstress mother from his youngest days. By 12, he was designing for stylish women in his home town, and by 13, he completed his first collection for Marquesa de Casa Torres. She continued as his mentor as he pursued his formal training in Madrid. In 1918, he opened his first couture shop, designing styles in the early Spanish Renaissance style.

In 1936 the Spanish Civil War raged on, forcing Balenciaga to move to Paris, conveniently the fashion capital of the world. By 1939 he had established himself as designer to be reckoned with, and had completed his line of “Infanta” dresses.

Drawing made for Madge Garland, Winter Collections, Paris, 1939.
Courtauld History of Dress Collections.

Balenciaga developed structured sculptural dresses, which were at once both streamlined and fluid. They were a counterpoint to the full skirts done by his contemporary, Dior. Balenciaga was known to take inspiration from his fabric, declaring it the “beginning of all design.”

Cristobal Balenciaga, 1968. Image courtesy of CRFASHIONBOOK

The 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of the Balenciaga revolution, when he began to be known as the “King of Haute Couture”, although he was never a member of the French Federation of Fashion and of Ready-to-Wear Couturiers and Fashion Designers, the body which governs French design. He was always a fashion law unto himself. In 1951, he introduced the fitted suit with broad shoulders with a full back and a fitted front. By the late fifties he had designed the sack dress and trapeze silhouette, both departures from the conventional and harbingers of modernity.

Lilian, Princess of Réthy, who was the second wife of Belgium’s Leopold III, was a stylish woman who wore a series of designers, including Balmain, Dior and Balenciaga. Many of her dresses and accessories were displayed at Natan’s (yes, *that* Natan) showroom, prior to being auctioned off at Sotheby’s in 2002. The Balenciaga below is black wool with mink trim along the back opening.

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Balenciaga was known for structured, almost daywear-like, evening gowns. This gown below, owned by Lilian, is an excellent example of his tailoring expertise.

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Also part of Lilian’s collections was this black silk crepe shift dress, which dates to 1964.

Princess Grace was also a client, and throughout the fifties and sixties she purchased several structural evening gowns and suits by the designer, two of which are shown below.

Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, 18th Duchess of Alba was the most titled aristocrat in the world and a natural fit for Balenciaga. In the late forties she posed for Vogue wearing one of his designs.

Vogue, 1948

The pièce de résistance of his royal designs was the wedding gown designed for Doña Fabiola de Mora y Aragón, soon to be Queen Fabiola of the Belgians. You can’t get much more couture and royal than white silk and ermine, done up in the Balenciaga structured style. The custom silk satin gown featured a bateau neckline, raglan sleeves and a low waist. Fabulous as the front view was, the watteau train, trimmed in mink, made the rear view as much, or more, spectacular.

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There was plenty of Balenciaga on view at Fabiola’s wedding, including this beautiful dress worn by the wife of the Spanish ambassador.

A bit further afield, royally-speaking, was the last dress Balenciaga designed. It was for the 1972 wedding of the Duke of Anjou and Cadiz, a grandson of King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and Maria del Carmen Martinez-Bordiu y Franco, a granddaughter of General Franco. Unhappy with the fit, the designer reportedly refitted the entire dress just before the wedding.

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Balenciaga’s non-royal wedding designs were a dream, too, and just for enjoyment here is a sampling. Of note is the “one seam” dress (with the hat) his peacock trained fifites designs (embroidered long sleeve gown), and his simple sixties work (short sleeved gown).

Balenciaga was not a natural salesman and gave only one interview in his fifty year career. His fame and popularity were based entirely on his skill as a couturier and designer. He closed his design house in 1968, for reasons known only to himself. The designer died four years later, in 1972. In 1986, the rights to the name “Balenciaga” were acquired by a new firm.

Interested in more Balenciaga? See this slide retrospective.

We are leaving Spanish designers for the time being. We are skipping over to Monaco next week where are going to spend some time with some serious fashionistas.