Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre was born into a working-class family in the town of Getaria (Basque Country, Spain) on 21st January 1895. His father, a fisherman, died when Balenciaga was 11 years old. His mother, a figure of reference for Balenciaga, was a seamstress and worked for the Marquises de Casa-Torres family.
This meant that, from a very young age, Balenciaga was in contact with his mother’s trade, combined with the elegance and fine taste of the marchioness, who helped to encourage his talent and would become one of his first clients. By 1907 he appeared as a registered citizen of San Sebastián, where he started to learn the trade of tailor-making while working at a number of establishments with connections to Parisian fashion. At that time, the city was enjoying a heyday of tertiary economic activity, boosted by the seasonal presence of the court in summer and the tourist attraction of the Basque Coast.
At the age of 22, Cristóbal Balenciaga opened his first business, recorded in the industrial register under the heading of Couturier, paying a rate of tax corresponding to the highest category as C. Balenciaga, at the Calle Vergara No. 2. Within the year he had changed the corporate aspect of the entry to add new partners, the Lizaso sisters, in a limited society with a temporary period of six years, creating Balenciaga y Cía and maintaining the same business address.
After that time, in 1924, the association was dissolved and in its place, Cristóbal Balenciaga was registered, transferring operations to the Avenida No. 2. That year, his business was already employing 71 workers (68 women and 3 men). In March 1927 he created Martina Robes et Manteaux on the first floor of the Calle Oquendo 10 (Martina had been his mother’s name) as the second brand in a diversification strategy, which in October took on the new name of EISA Costura (yet again related to his mother's surname, Eizaguirre).
The first company, Cristóbal Balenciaga, stayed open without interruption until 1937, the date on which he moved to Paris. The second, EISA Costura, diversified geographically to Madrid (1933) and Barcelona (1935) with the name of Eisa BE, while remaining in San Sebastian at Avenida no. 2.
But it is without a doubt his Parisian period which earned him his recognition as one of history’s most influential designers. Prompted by the Spanish Civil War, Balenciaga moved to Paris where he installed his salons at no. 10 Avenue George V. This decision not only gave him access to the most important fabric providers and to the biggest specialists in trades related to Haute Couture, it also brought him into contact with a cosmopolitan clientele of tremendous social, economic and cultural importance, throwing him into the spotlight of the international media.
Success accompanied him right from the presentation of his first collection in 1937 and his creations, based on comfort, pureness of lines, the reinterpretation of Spanish tradition and the development of innovative volumes, marked fashion in the central decades of the 20th century, until the year ’68, when Haute Couture started to lose weight in favour of prêt-à-porter, the moment Balenciaga decided to retire.
His precision, skill with technique and perfectionism earned him the admiration of his colleagues and contemporaries, like Christian Dior, who called him “the master of us all”, Hubert de Givenchy, who referred to him as “the architect of Haute Couture” or Coco Chanel, who qualified him as being “the only true couturier”.
But it is his capacity for innovation, in subtle and constant evolution, his knowledge of fabric, his sense of proportion and measurement, and his vision and interpretation of the female body that earned him veneration as one of the most influential designers of all times.
In his creative evolution, Balenciaga researched, experimented with, introduced and perfected different lines that changed the prevailing female silhouette, moving away from the socio-cultural norms of the time and gradually introducing higher degrees of abstraction. Focussing on the back, blurring the waistline, generating volumes and simplifying the cut.
This led to introduction of the “tonneau” line (1947), the “semi-fitted" look of 1951, the “balloon” skirts of 1953, the 1955 tunic, the 1957 “sack” dress or the “baby-doll” dress of 1958, moving towards the formal minimalism which characterises his creations of the following decade.
His own words would define his work as an artist: “a couturier must be an architect for plans, a sculptor for shapes, an artist for colour, a musician for harmony and a philosopher for the sense of proportion."