Balenciaga – the master of couture who seeded fashion’s love affair with black

Extract from Irving Penn, Sue Murray in Balenciaga, Vogue, September 1967 © Condé Nast

Cristóbal Balenciaga’s extraordinary dress designs reshaped the female body and made black a mainstay of international fashion. Balenciaga in black at Kunstmuseum Den Haag tells the story of his most famous pieces.

Couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga famously claimed that his designs could work magic. “A woman doesn’t have to be perfect or even beautiful to wear my clothes,” he said. “The dress will do that for her.” A Balenciaga gown exuded confidence and elegance, and the most glamorous and influential women of the day flocked to be fitted by him, including Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner and Jackie Kennedy.

On the occasion of the 50thth On the anniversary of Balenciaga’s death, the largest collection of his work ever exhibited in the Netherlands will be on display at the Kunstmuseum Den Haag Balenciaga in black opens on September 24th. The exhibition, a tribute to the bold black designs for which the Spanish couturier is best known, has been shown in Paris and Texas. Showcasing over 100 showpieces from the collections of the Maison Balenciaga and the Palais Galliera, Paris’s fashion museum, it allows visitors to admire the craftsmanship and luxurious fabrics of its iconic designs up close.

A future in fashion beckoned Balenciaga from the start. His mother was a seamstress, so he saw a garment being made from a young age. By the age of 12 he was an apprentice tailor, impressing distinguished clients and moving on to more prestigious establishments where he learned quickly and displayed amazing talent. At 22, he opened the first of a series of fashion houses in San Sebastián, a resort town on the north coast of Spain near his family home in Getaria.

Photo: Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Great Designer, 1946, Collectie Center for Creative Photography © Center for Creative Photography, Arizona

When the Spanish Civil War forced the closure of his shops in 1936, he moved his business to Paris, where he remained until 1968. Here he mingled with the good and the great of fashion: Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and his dear friend and protégé Hubert Givenchy.

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Despite the move, his designs continued to draw on his Spanish heritage, recalling the capes and cropped jackets of the paso doble, the extravagance of flamenco, and the lace mantillas and full skirts of traditional evening wear. However, some speculate that it was desperation at the loss of his colleague and partner Wladzio D’Attainville in 1948 that stripped the color from his designs. But this non-color breathed unexpected life into his work, creating the stunning silhouettes that have become Balenciaga’s trademark.

“It was a daring woman who chose his designs,” Madelief Hohé, curator of Balenciaga in black said “It wasn’t the traditional focus on hips, waist, breasts, shoulders – he made designs that would contrast with your body. The design itself was often sculptural and did not obediently follow your body line.’

Photo: Henry Clarke, Stella Oakes in Balenciaga suit, 1951, Palais Galliera

Voluminous structures that create space between body and clothing gave women freedom of movement and meant Balenciaga’s designs flattered clients of all ages and shapes. “You didn’t have to have a perfect body,” explains Hohé. ‘He liked that you had a normal body.’ New shape trends were born: the barrel line, the balloon and the sack dress that overshadow the female figure and look good on the catwalk.

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To achieve these pronounced shapes, Balenciaga required innovative materials. “If there was a fabric that wasn’t there, by working with the textile companies, he made sure it was there,” says Hohé, citing the example of kazar and zakar, fabrics that were specially designed for him yet lightweight were stiff and strong. “It gave him the freedom to introduce new forms into fashion.”

Balenciaga’s extensive use of black also allowed for an exploration of texture. In the pitch-black light of the exhibition, the mix of materials – from coarsely quilted cloqué to elaborate lace and pearls – shows the designer’s extraordinary range and his sensitivity to touch and light.

“To me, as a Dutchman, it really feels like he made the most of the playfulness of using just one color,” says Hohé. “If you look at our 17thth Throughout the 20th century, many nobles were only portrayed in black, but there were so many different shades of black. They were masters at combining different textures: glitter, velvet, silk… In this way, Balenciaga also played with black and I think it’s a very interesting aspect that when you limit yourself to one thing and at a color leaves so much freedom − and he was really a master at that.’

1950s cocktail dresses on display at Balenciaga in black. Photo:

Even today, under the creative direction of Demna Gvasalia (1981), black still dominates the Balenciaga lookbook. Though the label has since made a name for itself in streetwear, Balenciaga still holds its own in couture, with celebrities including Lady Gaga and sisters Kim Kardashian and Kendall Jenner choosing the brand’s bold creations for red carpet events.

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Balenciaga’s legacy lives on in other fashion houses, particularly in Japan. Comme des Garçons and Rei Kawakubo share his love of volume and sculptural design, while Yohji Yamamoto designs primarily in black.

Cristóbal Balenciaga was last seen in public at Coco Chanel’s funeral in 1972. She understood more than anyone the superiority of his work. “Balenciaga is the only one of us who’s a real couturier,” she once said. “The rest are just designers.”

Balenciaga in black runs from September 24, 2022 to March 5, 2023 at the Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

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