Founded in 1918 by the Basque designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, the house emerged as one of the great design establishments in the early decades of the twentieth century, and reemerged around the turn of the new millennium as one of the greats of the twenty-first. Championed alike by actual queens (of Spain and Belgium) and the queens of café society and Hollywood (Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Marlene Dietrich), Balenciaga did nothing less than redefine the female silhouette. Throughout the mid-century years, he introduced forms that at first looked awkward or simply unattractive, but, as the eye adjusted, they became the latest word in chic: the sack, the baby doll, the balloon skirt, the bracelet sleeve (a 7/8 length that hit just shy of the wrist).
Balenciaga was the son of a seamstress from a small fishing village. At the urging of a prominent patron, he attended tailoring school in Madrid and soon opened boutiques in the country. The Spanish Civil War forced him to relocate to Paris in 1937—a tragic turn of events that had a silver lining: The greater stage of Paris gave him a chance to expand his clientele and solidify his reputation as the "couturier of couturiers."
The operation, then exclusively couture, closed in 1968, an event that caused Countess Mona von Bismarck to lock herself indoors for three days. Balenciaga died in 1972.
In 1987, the name was revived as a prêt-à-porter label, but it wasn't until 1997, when the youthful French designer Nicolas Ghesquière came on board as creative director, that the house began to regain its former prominence. Giving concepts from the rich Balenciaga archives an intriguing rethink, the instinctively progressive Ghesquière was dubbed a new messiah by the press. In 2001, the Gucci Group added Balenciaga to its stable of luxury brands. Under Ghesquière, Balenciaga became one of the most trendsetting (and most copied) labels in fashion, but in late 2012, after one of the most well-received collections of his career, he left the label amid rumblings that relations between himself and PPR (now Kering) had soured.
Alexander Wang, a New York up-and-comer who won the CFDA Designer of the Year award before he was 30, was named the new creative director of Balenciaga. Wang's debut collection for Fall 2013 was met with strong reviews.
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