HQParis, France
FounderCristóbal Balenciaga

Though Balenciaga is now known as one of the world’s most famous and revered French fashion houses, its founder, Cristóbal Balenciaga, was actually a Spaniard. Born and raised by a seamstress in the Basque province, Balenciaga opened his first boutique in San Sebastián in 1919. Its success quickly led to further locations in Barcelona and Madrid, but the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 forced him to close his stores, and he relocated to Paris, opening his first store in the French capital in 1937. Over the next three decades, Cristóbal Balenciaga would establish himself as one of the most important designers in fashion history. Defying many of the rules of fashion at the time, his fluid and often minimalist creations played with form in revolutionary ways, treating the human body as a structure around which to build his designs. Many critics have pointed to the “architectural” nature of his pieces, and his unrivalled knowledge in pattern cutting combined with his preference for stiff, rigid fabrics such as silk gazar to create fashion designs which didn’t accentuate the human form so much as transform it entirely. Squared-off shoulders, loose-waisted dresses and shortened “bracelet” sleeves which allowed the wearer to show off their jewelry are three of his most noteworthy creations, but the list of styles and techniques that he introduced to the fashion world is virtually endless. One of the most interesting aspects of Balenciaga’s work is that he was entirely self-taught, receiving no formal education in fashion design. In fact, he allegedly never even sketched any of his designs, leaving behind an archive built purely of physical creations. Despite this, he was once described by Christian Dior as, “the master of us all”, whilst Coco Chanel even referred to him as “the only couturier in the truest sense of the word”. In 1968, Balenciaga retired at the age of 74, closing the fashion house and all the Balenciaga stores. He died four years later in Xàbia, Spain, and the Balenciaga fashion line went silent for almost two decades. In 1986, the rights to the house were acquired by Jacques Bogart S.A., who revived the brand with Michael Goma as designer. Over the next few years the Balenciaga line would receive mixed reviews from critics, and in 1992 Dutch designer Josephus Thimister was brought on to restore the Balenciaga brand to its original status. During this time, Nicolas Ghesquière worked under Thimister, and in 1997 he was promoted to Head Designer at the house. Arguably the most influential designer of Balenciaga’s second iteration, Ghesquière revitalised many of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s original techniques and philosophies in a modern context, attracting a number of celebrity and fashion journalist endorsements including Vogue’s Anna Wintour. In 2012, after 15 years at the helm of Balenciaga, Ghesquière departed from Balenciaga, and was replaced by Alexander Wang. Wang would remain at the French fashion house for only 3 years, with his collections receiving mixed reviews, some commenting that his designs, though not necessarily bad, were not in keeping with the tradition of the house. His final collection for Balenciaga was Spring/Summer 2016. For Fall/Winter 2017, Balenciaga enlisted upcoming Georgian designer and mastermind behind controversial fashion brand Vetements, Demna Gvasalia, as its new Creative Director. Himself known for his rebellious fashion designs which morph and defy the human form, Gvasalia’s work for the brand so far has been well-received, rejuvenating Balenciaga through a mixture of high-fashion and streetwear design elements, as well as reconfiguring cultural perceptions of the high fashion world from both the inside and the outside.