Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Only True Couturier Among Us

For most of last week, I was in a daze. A large part of my work agenda consisted in doing research about Cristóbal Balenciaga, but I just didn't know how his story was going to overcome me. Until then, I had a basic knowledge of Balenciaga for someone working in fashion: I knew he was born in the little fishing town of Guetaria in the Basque Country, the son of a fisherman and a seamstress; that his talent was remarked very early by members of the haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy who spent their summers in Guetaria, and thanks to these ladies his company was able to expand. I also knew, of course, that he was forced to leave Spain during the Civil War and chose to open his maison in Avenue George V in Paris, thus becoming the genius designer Coco Chanel would define as "the only true couturier among us".

But enough with the Cinderella story. It has been told a thousand times in a bit of a clichéd tone, so I was not really interested in that. What I wanted to know was why someone like Chanel (alongside Monsieur Dior, Hubert de Givenchy and so many others) openly hailed Balenciaga as the ultimate master and best couturier ever. So I just let his collections -from 1937 to 1968- speak for him.

I discovered a designer deeply influenced by his homeland, inspired by the "Siglo de Oro", Velázquez, Goya, traditional Spanish attire and the practical and simple outfits worn by fishermen in Northern Spain. However, he was intelligent enough as to not display an array of commonplace Spanish pieces; flamenco dresses and torero outfits may be dramatic and impressive, but women don't want to wear them season after season. Instead, he isolated several elements and focused on their architectural aspect to organically transform them into the minimal sartorial basis of his collections.

Carefully analyzed, his pieces carry endless subtle "clins d'oeil" to Spain. But overall, they answer to the universal concept of taste... for women. For I don't think any designer (except maybe Mademoiselle Chanel) has understood femininity and what women need and want as deeply as Cristóbal Balenciaga. He fought Christian Dior's constrictive vision of what women's appearance should be (should women really look like ornate rococo decorative elements, exposed, fragile and vulnerable?) and riposted to Dior's corsets, girdles and X silhouettes with protective fabrics and shapes that brought out the neckline, back and arms of women rather than the tired 90-60-90 zones.

Perhaps it was this extraordinary understanding of women and our relationship to clothes. Or maybe it was simply because I was born myself not far from Guetaria and I could recognize such familiar features in his portraits... I found myself grasping Balenciaga's work and life from a purely emotional point of view. I knew he was an extremely private and discreet person, but I wanted to know more about him. Not the rags to riches story, nor the glory days, just the small things: how was his life in Paris? What was his love story with Vladzio d'Attainville like? What kind of Spanish accent did he have when speaking French? How did Spain's situation make him feel?

I guess we'll never know. But I can't help thinking that, had he been French, no matter how discreet he was we would know. What is it with the Spanish? Why can't we ever give credit to our own talent? While the French (and the British, Italian and American) still hail Balenciaga as the greatest haute couture designer of the XXth century, the Spanish indiscriminately sandwitch him between other national designers like Roberto Verino and Pertegaz (never heard of them? Neither would I if I wasn't Spanish). A Balenciaga museum opened in Guetaria earlier this year (hadn't heard of it? No worries, apparently no one did outside the Iberian border); as part of my research, I read the articles published in every big Spanish newspaper about the museum's opening. They were all filled with grandiose paragraphs describing in thorough detail the endless parade of very important political personalities and celebrities who attended the opening party. There were roughly a couple of lines introducing Cristóbal Balenciaga.
The thought of Spain's media and politicians shamelessly using the very person who situated Spain in the fashion map not only made me feel like I was witnessing some sort of Dickensian scene; it also made me realize that, no matter how many times Balenciaga's story is told as a fairy tale with a happy ending, it is more of a bittersweet drama: the story of an artist's unrequited love for his country.
Perhaps Spain will someday come to understand its gift. Until then, luckily, we'll always have Paris.

1 comment:

  1. he is so simple in his dress that is why maybe Mrs Chanel called like a true couturier among them.. Love your blog !!


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