He’d joined a sewing circle by the age of four, and by 12 he was learning the art of cutting at a tailoring house in San Sebastián. It’s no wonder that, by the end of his God-fearing life in 1972, Cristóbal Balenciaga was known as ‘the master of us all’.
Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1927. (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

For his autumn/winter 2017 menswear collection for Balenciaga, the designer Demna Gvasalia, who’d elevated the oversized hoodie to haute status at Vetements, vowed to “make tailoring sexy again”. His method? To cut a roomy jacket, dispense with the shirt all together, and lower the skinny trousers to a point just above the pubic bone, while encasing the feet in a pair of expansive — and conspicuously branded — biker boots. This wasn’t so much casual Friday as steam-punk Saturday.

What would the venerable couture house’s creator have made of all this? Hard, if not impossible, to say, as, during his long and illustrious tenure as “fashion’s Picasso” (Cecil Beaton) and “the master of us all” (Christian Dior), Cristóbal Balenciaga made J.D. Salinger look like a blabbermouth. “He is seldom to be seen by his clients and he rarely goes out into society,” Beaton wrote. He gave only one interview, to The Times in 1971, in which he was at pains to express “the absolute impossibility of explaining my métier to anyone”. Only one official photo session exists, from 1927, in which a pensive-looking Balenciaga perches on an Ottoman, resplendent in an immaculately soft-shouldered double-breasted suit and a fluffed pocket-square whose arabesques mimic the avant-garde swirls of his most outré creations. But fashion insiders regard Balenciaga and Gvasalia as kindred spirits. Both play with form and proportion, and flirt with the immoderate, from Gvasalia’s off-the-shoulder puffer jackets to Balenciaga’s ‘sack dress’, which caused as much of a stir in the early fifties as Comme Des Garçons’ ‘lumps and bumps’ collection would three decades later, and a black velvet evening gown that the devout Balenciaga based on clerical vestments — while raising its split to a vertiginous, if not heavenly, height. “He told me he had a priest in mind when he cut it,” wrote Claudia Heard de Osborne, one of Balenciaga’s most enthusiastic clients, who kept a suite at the Ritz solely for her couture. “A very sexy priest.”


Stuart Husband


February 2022


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