Cristóbal Balenciaga was born in 1895 in Getaria, Spain to a fisherman and a seamstress. His passion for fabrics came from his mother who taught her son the trade at a young age. After a childhood spent honing his skills as an apprentice to a tailor in the fashionable resort of San Sebastián, Balenciaga opened his first fashion house in 1917, named Eisa—an abbreviation of his mother’s maiden name. Eisa was a successful business, spawning branches in Barcelona and Madrid until the Spanish Civil War forced Balenciaga to close his business. In 1937, Balenciaga moved to Paris and set up shop on Avenue George V, where he quickly became the city’s most expensive and exclusive couturier. Because of Balenciaga’s early training and ability to create a garment alone from start to finish, he was heralded as the best.
The 1950s marked the beginning of what is considered the golden age of Balenciaga. It was during this decade where Balenciaga made some of his most iconic designs by taking the biggest risks. At a time when Christian Dior’s hourglass shaped “New Look” was the dominant silhouette, Balenciaga went the complete opposite direction with his “Sack Dress” in 1957. Although the design was met with hostility at the time, the world would eventually catch up with Balenciaga’s vision and the Sack Dress became a seminal piece of 1960s fashion and is regarded as a staple today. Balenciaga went on designing iconic dresses and dressing glamorous women until 1968, when his fashion house closed the doors for the last time. To understand Cristóbal Balenciaga’s impact, one would simply have to read newspaper headlines when he died four years later: “The King Is Dead.”
After The Bogart Group acquired the right to Balenciaga in 1987, Michel Goma was tasked with designing ready-to-wear collections. Goma’s short hems and long skirts brought the company moderate success. Following Goma’s exit in 1992, Josephus Thimister attempted to bring the house back to its high fashion status but when the audience of his 1997 show walked out due to the loud music, he was relieved of his duties. Before becoming creative director of Louis Vuitton, Nicolas Ghesquière made a name for himself at Balenciaga with a debut collection that put the silhouette first, much like the house’s founder. Over the next 15 years, Ghesquière applied the tailoring Balenciaga was known for to the trends of the time and created standout pieces of his own, such as the Lariat bag and gladiator boots.
Following Ghesquière’s 2012 exit and Alexander Wang’s brief stint as creative director, Vetements founder Demna Gvasalia was appointed artistic director of Balenciaga in 2015. Since his appointment, the brand has become known more for its sneakers than dresses, with its Triple S becoming the quintessential chunky sneaker. Silhouettes like the Track Trainer and Speed Trainer have since become some of the most popular sneakers available. Although the brand’s current look is far from the dresses Mr. Balenciaga designed in his heyday, one thing that remains the same is the Balenciaga name is still synonymous with the pinnacle of design.