Though he was born in the quiet fishing village of Getaria in Spain’s Basque region, Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972) was destined to reshape modern fashion. As a child, he worked alongside his seamstress mother. Showing immense talent, he earned commissions as a teenager from local patron Marquesa de Casa Torres, who paid for his tailoring education in Madrid. In 1917, he established his first haute couture house — named Eisa, for his mother — in the trendy resort town San Sebastián. He soon followed it with boutiques in Madrid and Barcelona, drawing such clientele as the Spanish royal family.
When the Spanish Civil War put a hold on his prospects in Spain, the designer moved to Paris, opening a house on Avenue Georges V in 1937. There, Balenciaga rubbed elbows with fashion greats like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli and quickly won over clients like Gloria Guinness, Pauline de Rothschild and Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. As a couturier, Balenciaga drew from his Spanish heritage for ideas, riffing on everything from matador costumes and flamenco dresses to the paintings of Diego Velázquez, whose portraits of Spanish princesses famously inspired Balenciaga’s Infanta gown.
An expert tailor, he experimented with sculptural silhouettes that didn’t follow the body. Some of his notable designs include the 1953 balloon jacket, and from 1957, the cocoon coat, the baby-doll dress and the sack dress, which he popularized with his good friend designer Hubert de Givenchy. All of these could be considered not just the masterpieces of haute couture, but also objets d’art in their own right, leading to Balenciaga’s nickname, “The Master.”
Balenciaga continued designing until 1968, when he retired after three decades of influential work and his fashion house went dormant. The rights to Balenciaga were acquired by Jacques Bogart S.A. in 1986. Under designer Michel Goma, who focused on ready-to-wear, the brand experienced a resurgence, with his first collection introduced in 1987. The brand returned to high fashion with the arrival of designer Josephus Thimister in 1992. It has since been led by a series of creative directors who have paid homage to Balenciaga’s iconic designs, including Nicolas Ghesquière, Alexander Wang and, most recently, Demna Gvasalia. In 2011, a museum celebrating Balenciaga’s legacy opened in his hometown in Spain, commemorating where it all began.