A fashion model in balloon jacket poses outdoors for a photo

Balenciaga is one of the most elegant forces in modern fashion. However, you may be unaware of the extent to which this house has influenced women’s and men’s fashion. Last November, Balenciaga’s creative director, Nicolas Ghesquière, announced that he was parting ways with the label. Later that month, Balenciaga announced that the already established designer Alexander Wang would be taking over as creative director of the fashion house. With his first two women’s collections and one menswear collection with Balenciaga now under his belt, finding high praise from critics and commercial success, Wang has proven that the revival of Balenciaga will continue to thrive with him in charge.

Balenciaga was founded by Cristóbal Balenciaga in 1914. His first shop was in San Sebastián, Spain, but it quickly grew to Madrid and Barcelona. Although he found success in Spain with the royal family, the Spanish Civil War led Balenciaga’s relocation to Paris in 1937. The Spanish Renaissance was the main influence for Balenciaga’s first show in August, and he found immediate success. As the Second World War broke out, customers risked trips to Balenciaga’s European shop to purchase his designs. In his first few years designing, Balenciaga created the square coat (whose sleeves were cut with the same piece as the yoke), and received recognition for his intricate lace overlay on light pink fabrics. However, Balenciaga’s creativity wasn’t fully honed until after the war. In this time, Cristóbal Balenciaga’s designs became more linear, structured and sleek, directly opposing Christian Dior’s “New Look” while simultaneously helping to usher women’s fashion into modernity with Dior. Balenciaga crafted smooth, fluid lines and manipulated the way a woman’s body and clothing interacts. Balenciaga’s balloon jacket (above; a spherical, round jacket), high-waisted baby doll dress, cocoon coat, balloon skirt, sack dress, and empire waistline were the most notable examples of Balenciaga’s  ability to reconstruct a women’s waistline and silhouette with his craft. In the 1960s, Balenciaga began using heavier fabrics and created his funnel shaped gowns made of stiff duchess satin. Publicly worn by many celebrities and fashionistas of the time, Balenciaga’s fanbase soared. Jackie Kennedy famously angered her president-husband by buying Balenciaga’s designs, as John F. Kennedy worried the expenses appeared too extravagant to the American public.

Cristóbal Balenciaga not only created masterful designs, but also masterful protégés, including: Oscar de la Renta, Emanuel Ungaro and Givenchy. Hubert de Givenchy stayed by Balenciaga’s side through his media controversies, including when Balenciaga decided to reveal his 1957 collection to the fashion press only a day before it hit retailers, instead of the usual four weeks. The media had to scramble to run their pieces, but Givenchy defended Balenciaga’s decision as a method of avoiding outside production of cheap copies. Balenciaga also went against the Chambre’s rules and elitism, again supported by Givenchy, and was never a member, so his couture collections aren’t technically “haute couture”. Balenciaga closed the house in 1968 and died four years later.

In 1986, Jacques Bogart S.A. acquired the fashion house, and designer Michel Goma released a new ready-to-wear under Balenciaga, called Le Dix, to mixed reviews. However, when Josephus Thimister became head designer in 1992, he began the label’s restoration to its elegant, prestigious past. In 1997, Nicolas Ghesquière was promoted to head designer, and spent the next 15 years creating many menswear and women’s wear collections (which included the Lariat motorcycle handbag), continuing the work of Balenciaga. In this time, the label collected many celebrity and high-profile clients, including the fashion queen herself: Anna Wintour.

When it was announced that Alexander Wang would take over for Ghesquière in 2012, the fashion world leaned forward, interested to see how the young, established designer would direct the label. Wang’s first show, Fall 2013 Ready-to-Wear, paid homage to Balenciaga’s structured looks of the 1960s with its slim lines, narrow legs and crop tops. Wang re-envisioned the bubble skirt with a modern twist, and further modernized Balenciaga’s original creations with high-waisted peplum. Alexander Wang also ensured to include straight waists and straight sleeves similar to those found on Balenciaga’s classic square coats. This collection also debuted Balenciaga’s new maillon, a jewel fastening pin, a new staple for the house. For Wang’s second collection, Resort 2014, he travelled to Spain to visit Balenciaga’s childhood town and a museum dedicated to his work. In this collection, Wang referenced Balenciaga’s structures with softly collapsing shapes and materials, layering them for added effect. Wang used blossoming collars as Balenciaga did 60 years before, continuing his own work from the Ready-to-Wear collection. Structured shoulders, capes, and creative silhouettes showed that Wang creatively and commendably honoured Balenciaga’s craftsmanship, while adding Wang’s own brave and modern twist. His collections were extremely well-received, and Anna Wintour even said she was “proud” of Wang. His first menswear debut with the fashion house, Spring 2014, was also well-received, though considered unadventurous, sticking to basic neutrals and shapes. However, if his women’s lines are any indication, his menswear line will surely develop as his role with the fashion house does.

Do you think Alexander Wang kept Cristóbal Balenciaga’s craft and vision alive? Was he the right choice for the house?


This piece was written by Rebecca MacDonald, Fashion Columnist at Rhetoric Magazine. Come back for more every Thursday!