In 1968, Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his haute couture house. Various ex cathedra epithets were cited as his final (working) words, including “the life of a couturier is the life of a dog”, and “I will not prostitute my art.” To a distraught client, he reputedly once said: “Why do you want me to carry on? There is no one left for me to dress.” But in 2021, the house bearing Balenciaga’s name and the inheritor of his mantle, Demna Gvasalia, decided there were people to dress, and a purpose to resurrecting the house’s haute couture operation after a 53 year hiatus. They recreated Balenciaga’s salons – all-white with stucco-ed swirls in the Syrie Maugham mould – with a mind-boggling exactitude, the carpets matted and marked, the furniture scratched, as if they had carried on living since 1968. And then, in silence, just as Cristóbal always presented his collections, Gvasalia showed a vision of the future framed by these ghosts of the past.
With typical understatement, legendary former American Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland once described the scene at a Balenciaga opening as thus: “One fainted. It was possible to blow up and die. I remember at one show in the early 1960s … Audrey Hepburn turned to me and asked why I wasn’t frothing at the mouth at what I was seeing. I told her I was trying to act calm and detached because, after all, I was a member of the press. Across the way Gloria Guinness was sliding out of her chair onto the floor. Everyone was going up in foam and thunder.” Was it the same, this season, in the Avenue George V, under the same name but with a new audience, under a new creative director, for a new era? Absolutely.
Indeed, it was impossible not to sit in those white salons and think of the past, if you knew about it: of Balenciaga’s disdain for the press, to whom he showed his collections several weeks after his clients. Of the woman who asked for a ticket for a friend to see Balenciaga’s showing as she was intrigued by the clothes, only to be icily told “curious women are not welcome here.” Of Balenciaga’s cabine of models, dubbed ‘monsters’ and said to be the ugliest in Paris, who walked solemnly past the audience under strictest instructions not to smile. A truly distinguished woman, Balenciaga declared, often has a disagreeable air.
What Gvasalia did, cleverly, was to remember that past, respect it, but never allow it to become an albatross. Considering it is probably the weightiest legacy in fashion, that in itself is a tour de force. But Gvasalia did more. He reactivated Balenciaga’s couture for now, retaining elements of the house’s history yet evolving them, avoiding pastiche or retro. That’s not to say this felt detached from heritage: Balenciaga-isms were rife. Gowns embroidered by the traditional ateliers of Montex and Lesage were inspired by specific archive pieces, resurrected but reimagined. The wrenched-open, shrugged-back collars were based on the smocks Balenciaga designed in the 1950s, inspired by the fisherman’s smocks in his native Getaria on the Basque coast. Often pushed back in images, here they were engineered to stay open, suspended away from the body.
Those reminded me of a Pauline de Rothschild quote: “A woman walking would displace the air so that her skirt would billow out just so much, front, back and sides would round out each in turn, imperceptibly, like a sea-swell … Nothing held them out, neither whalebone cages nor petticoats gave them any support. Legs moved easily, the front of the long skirt running a little faster ahead than one’s walk.” These clothes had a similar sense of lightness, of shapes created around the body. De Rothschild also declared “The wit was on the head” at Balenciaga and, in homage to the esoteric and often insane headgear Balenciaga preferred (designed by his two partners, Ramon Esparza, and Wladzio Jawrorowski d’Attainville), Philip Treacy created vast polished black saucers, like Martian millinery. And the opening black suits, strict and mannish, were based on Cristóbal Balenciaga’s own, now offered for women and men.
Modernity was what Cristóbal Balenciaga strove for, constantly – he stripped away structure, he simplified, even minimalised. He referenced the work of Velasquez and Zurbarán, the dress of the 18th and 19th centuries, but constantly reworked it. Nothing ever stayed static. It’s probably fair to say that the last thing he would wish for in a revival of Balenciaga haute couture would be a static homage, a mere echo of the past. Even if you looked back, in that hallowed address compared by so many to a church – not least Father Robert Pieplu, Balenciaga’s priest – the clothes looked forward. Ultimately, this couture collection was a measure of Gvasalia’s defiance of Cristóbal Balenciaga: he found new people to dress.