Cristóbal Balenciaga, master of couture

collage image of three photographs: a long, yellow dress, a black cocktail dress and a short dress with a floral pattern.

What is the history of the Balenciaga fashion house?

Balenciaga is known today as a global fashion powerhouse brand, led by creative director Demna Gvasalia. The luxury fashion house is very much shaping contemporary style. Its history is more than 100 years old, dating back to a boutique store in Spain.

In this blog, we'll look at the history of the Balenciaga fashion house and explore its enduring appeal.

What are the origins of the Maison Balenciaga?

Before Balenciaga was Cristóbal Balenciaga. Born on January 21, 1895, in the small coastal town of Getaria, in the north of Spain, Cristóbal Balenciaga emerged as one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century.

Balenciaga's mother was a seamstress. From her, he inherited a deep appreciation for textiles and craftsmanship. Soon he began an apprenticeship with a local tailor, where he learned the intricacies of pattern-making, cutting and sewing.

During this formative period, Balenciaga's prodigious talent began to blossom: in an interview in 1968, he declared that at the age of 12 he met the Marchioness of Casa-Torres, who allowed him to make a model for her, and became his first client.

drawing of a model wearing a long orange tunic dress with black gloves and black hat.

Where was Balenciaga's first store?

In 1917, Balenciaga moved to Donostia-San Sebastián, where he established his first fashion house at the age of 22.

Despite the challenges of launching a business at a young age and during World War I, his innate talent and dedication to his craft soon garnered attention. Balenciaga's designs were characterised by their impeccable tailoring and construction. They attracted a loyal clientele and laid the foundation for his future success.

drawing of a woman wearing a black evening dress, tied with a ribbon at the waist, with a collar embroidered with small flowers.
black and white photograph of a model wearing a long, white, sleeveless dress.

However, it was in Paris, the epicentre of the fashion world, where Balenciaga's star truly ascended.

In 1937, he opened his eponymous fashion house on Avenue George V. Balenciaga's designs defied convention, blending elements of traditional Spanish couture with avant-garde techniques and modern sensibilities. His mastery of form, silhouette and fabric earned him the admiration of clients and contemporaries alike.

photograph of a yellow satin sleeveless dress with embroidery details.
photograph of a black dress with a ruffled skirt, tied with a belt at the waist.
photograph of a long beige dress with long sleeves and a red collar.

Coco Chanel once said 'Balenciaga alone is a couturier in the truest sense of the word', while Christian Dior described him as 'the master of us all' - establishing him as a leading figure in haute couture.

How was Balenciaga a fashion pioneer?

Throughout his career, Balenciaga was a perfectionist, known for his exacting standards and meticulous attention to detail.

His pioneering use of innovative fabric such as gazar and organza, innovative construction techniques based on traditional tailoring, and approach to silhouette revolutionised the couture industry.

photograph of a black dress, with black tulle ruffles.
photograph of a long pink taffeta strapless dress, covered with white and black lace.
black and white photograph, a model wearing a jacket and skirt outfit and carrying a closed umbrella.

Despite his immense success, Cristóbal Balenciaga was also very private about his personal life. He never married and many rumours were spread about his sexuality.

The two documented relationships he had were with his milliners, Ramon Esparza, and Wladzio Jawrorowski d’Attainville, who many critics described as the love of his life. D’Attainville was a Franco-Polish aristocrat who helped Balenciaga establish his Maison during the 1920s. He died in 1948, and according to journalist Judith Thurman, Balenciaga was so devastated he even considered closing his business, but was persuaded by Christian Dior not to do so.

He eventually closed his Paris salon in 1968, largely due to the changing fashion landscape and his desire to maintain the integrity of his work in the face of evolving industry pressures.

His retirement marked the end of an era in fashion, but his legacy lived on through the countless designers he inspired and the enduring impact of his visionary creations.

photograph of a white tulle dress with a bodice and voluminous skirt.

Balenciaga after Cristóbal

Following his departure, the brand experienced several changes in creative direction and ownership.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the brand struggled to maintain its previous prominence. However, in the 1990s, it underwent a revival under the leadership of designer Nicolas Ghesquière, who injected new energy and creativity into Balenciaga's collections.

photograph of a multicolour neoprene dress, with graffiti patterns; it has black and white wool sections and straps and metal buckles.
black and white trainers with a high ankle and the word 'Balenciaga' printed on the side.
a thigh-high boot embroidered with orange, pink, yellow and green flowers.

In 2001, Balenciaga was acquired by the French luxury conglomerate Kering. Under the creative direction of designers like Nicolas Ghesquière, Alexander Wang, and most notably, Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga regained its status as one of the most influential and innovative fashion houses in the world.