The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His Worldby Mary Blume
A sparkling life of the monumental fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga
When Cristóbal Balenciaga died in 1972, the news hit the front page of The New York Times. One of the most innovative and admired figures in the history of haute couture, Balenciaga said that he was the only designer who dared to do as he liked. He was, said Christian/i>/b>
A sparkling life of the monumental fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga
When Cristóbal Balenciaga died in 1972, the news hit the front page of The New York Times. One of the most innovative and admired figures in the history of haute couture, Balenciaga said that he was the only designer who dared to do as he liked. He was, said Christian Dior, “the master of us all.”
But despite his extraordinary impact, he was a man hidden from view. Unlike today’s celebrity designers, he saw to it that little was known about him, to the point that some French journalists wondered if he existed at all. Even his most notable and devoted clients never met him.
But one woman knew Balenciaga better than anyone else. The first person he hired when he opened his Paris house, furnished with only a table and a chair, Florette Chelot became his top vendeuse—as much an adviser as a saleswoman. She witnessed the spectacular success of his first collection, and they worked closely for thirty years—until 1968, when Balenciaga abruptly closed his house without telling any of his staff. Youth-oriented fashion was taking over, Paris was in upheaval, and the elder statesman wanted no part of it.
In The Master of Us All, Mary Blume tells the remarkable story of the man and his house through the eyes of the woman who knew him best. Intimate and revealing, this is an unprecedented portrait of a designer whose vision transformed an industry, but whose story has never been told until now.
“One of the best biographies written about any personality in fashion… Take my word for it: Buy it, read it, and love it!” Jeffrey Felner, New York Journal of Books
“The wit and sharp eye of Mary Blume have made the French accessible . . . Rather like Nabokov with butterflies, she pins her specimens to the page in full color.” Gore Vidal
“[A] penetrating and entertaining new biography.” Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times
“Intimate, enthusiastic, and lively first biography of the enigmatic designer. . . Blume, former culture columnist for the International Herald Tribune, writes with wit and aplomb; she was also a Balenciaga client, a fact that clearly informed the revealing and laudatory perspective shared with readers here.” Publishers Weekly
“[A] captivating new biography . . . [Blume] rounds out her recollections and Florette's with astute reporting, tracing Balenciaga'sand haute couture'srise against a richly embroidered swath of social history. . . Despite her impossibly private subject, Blume goes a long way toward illuminating Balenciaga within his own context, finding his scope of influence on par with that of fashion's other revolutionaries, Chanel and Vionnet.” Megan O'Grady, Vogue.com
“Elegantly weaving interviews with Balenciaga's last living chums . . . with cultural history, Blume's account follows Balenciaga's top vendeuse Florette Chelot, who provides a keen . . . perspective on midcentury Luxe. Like a Balenciaga suit designed to skim the body rather than hug it, Blume's artful blend of history, reporting, and chat conjures the designer's world. . .” Rhonda Lieberman, Bookforum
“Blume's extensive interviews with [Cristóbal Balenciaga's top saleswoman, Florette] Chelot, who stayed with Balenciaga from his first collection, in 1937, to his last, in 1968, yield fresh material about an enigmatic man whose creationssuch as ‘the pillbox,' ‘the sack,' and ‘the baby-doll'are still imitated today, even if his reclusive self-effacement is not. Balenciaga cultists will delight in such character-revealing minutiae as the designer's technique for stirring up impeccable martinis (blot the ice first), his habit of wearing a hairnet to relax his curls, and his maniacal penchant for re-pinning sleeves. Blume's needle's-eye portrait nearly supports Hubert de Givenchy's conviction that his mentor was ‘a perfect man' and almost renders plausible Diana Vreeland's claim that the novel beauty of a Balenciaga show so overpowered her ‘it was possible to blow up and die.'” Amy Fine Collins, Vanity Fair
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Read an Excerpt
Cristóbal Balenciaga: a beautiful name. Elle magazine rhapsodized in 1950 that the four syllables of “Balenciaga” simply burst forth upon the page (actually, there are five), while a contemporary poet sees in the name’s “swaying melody the flowing quality of Balenciaga’s clothes and exquisite justesse of their proportions.” It is a once-upon-a-time sort of name that should be part of a fable, and it is.
The setting is the humble fishing village of Getaria on Spain’s Basque coast, between San Sebastián and Bilbao, the date early in the last century. The fairy tale has many versions, but let Pauline de Rothschild, the former Pauline Potter, begin:
In the center of a street made dark by the shadows of its thick stone houses, a woman was walking, her back turned to the light from the sea. She wore a pale, ankle length, silk shantung suit. The severe houses enclosed her, shuttered.
A boy was watching her.
She would come almost abreast of him, and he would run up a side-street of the fishing village, so closely carved into the mountain that its streets are as steep and narrow as Genoa’s, some entirely made of steps. Down another he would run and be ahead of her again.
Then he would stare.
One day he stopped her, and asked if he could make a suit for her. The boy was about thirteen, with dark hair and darker eyes and the smile he would keep all his life.
“Why do you want to do this?” she asked.
“Because I think I can,” he answered.
The boy was Cristóbal Balenciaga …
The woman was the old Marquesa de Casa Torres (or her daughter-in-law) and she was wearing a white (or beige) Worth, Drecoll, Ceruit, or Redfern dress or suit, according to who is telling the tale. She was possibly on her way to (or from) Mass. The boy may have been as young as six (or as old as nineteen), and his father—who had died of a heart attack or was drowned at sea—was either a fisherman or the captain of the royal yacht. Cheeky young Cristóbal, the legend continues, copied her outfit so perfectly that the marquesa became his patron and took him while he was still in his teens to meet the great couturier Jacques Doucet in Paris.
Some of this is true.
But much of it isn’t. The very plainness of plain fact has never seemed to fit someone so exotic as Balenciaga (as if the amazing could not spring from the quotidian), and so for decades the legends were embellished rather than investigated. Then a young Basque curator named Miren Arzalluz took the trouble to dig into official records and in 2010 published her findings about Balenciaga’s family and early years. Myths, uncovered facts, and one’s own instinct about the mix can finally make a coherent, if spare, whole.
Getaria, Balenciaga’s birthplace, is a modest and handsome fishing village whose past as a whaling port brought it sufficient wealth to have as its center an oversize Gothic church, San Salvador, of surpassing gloom and considerable weirdness because its near-trapezoidal floor tilts noticeably up toward the altar. A statue near the city hall honors the local hero, Sebastián de Elcano, the first captain to circumnavigate the globe (as Magellan’s second in command he took over when Magellan was killed in the Philippines), and new plaques mark the birthplaces of Balenciaga, in a tidy small house near the church, and the mother of Plácido Domingo, over an anchovy cannery. Getaria has excellent fish that restaurateurs grill in the street, and gray buildings whose sound proportions and straightness of line are bolder than the often-quaint Basque architecture of France. Even now Getaria has an air of provincial rectitude; its inhabitants provided San Sebastián, thirty kilometers along the coast, with fish and services when the Spanish king and his court went there each summer.
In about 1853, France’s Empress Eugénie, who was born in Spain, invented Biarritz as a fashionable resort. Following her example, in 1887, Queen María Cristina of Spain decided to make San Sebastián, across the border, the official summer home of the Spanish court. While Biarritz is dramatic and citified, San Sebastián is calmer and more elegant, with a wide seafront and restaurants that have made it a foodie mecca today. Friends in Paris were often surprised by the supposedly austere Balenciaga’s pleasure in good eating, but he was Basque, and three existential questions, it is said, trouble the Basques each day: Where do we come from? Who are we? What are we going to have for dinner?
The last question results in excellent local cooking; the first two are harder. No one knows where the Basques come from—even the prevalent blood type differs from that of other Europeans—and they like to think of themselves as Europe’s aborigines, their spiritual locus being an ancient oak tree in Guernica. The Basques’ language, Euskera, once believed to be the tongue spoken in the Garden of Eden, bears no relation to any other, and they group all the other languages in the world in one single dismissive word, Erdera. They are proud (by an ancient royal Spanish edict they are all aristocrats), deeply Catholic, and intractable. Cristóbal Balenciaga was definitely Basque.
The family was modest but respected: his father, a fisherman, served briefly as mayor of Getaria and rose to skipper the launch that was often used by the Spanish court, including the queen, in the summer season. His mother bore five children, two of whom died in infancy. Cristóbal, born in 1895, was the youngest; his sister, Agustina, and his brother, Juan Martín, remained his business associates in Spain throughout their lives. The older children were already at work when their father died after a stroke, leaving eleven-year-old Cristóbal alone to help out his mother, Martina Eizaguirre.
Well before her husband’s death Martina was already giving sewing lessons to local girls and making dresses for private clients such as the Marquesa de Casa Torres, whose dressmaker she became a year before before Cristóbal was born. Hubert de Givenchy says that Balenciaga told him that his first attempt at design was to make a necklace for his cat (“but since you can’t make a cat lie on its back all the beads scattered”), while a French magazine claims that he began by making a coat, including the legs, for his dog (presumably an early manifestation of his passion for sleeves). In any event the boy was at home with his mother, helping out, playing with scraps of fabric, and often going with her for fittings in the homes of summering aristocrats.
So the long-accepted legend of the meeting between the marquesa and the boy must be replaced by more convincing fact: he knew the marquesa and her home, just up the hill from the center of Getaria, from childhood. While he was helping his mother or playing with the marquesa’s children, he took in her wardrobe and her fashion magazines and her well-chosen furnishings (the marqués owned paintings by Goya and Velásquez), plugging naturally into the world of high style where he would spend his life. Not only could he study the Paris gowns his mother copied for summer use, but he could also learn to appreciate English tailoring and take in such novelties as department stores and buying by catalog, both of which the marquesa enjoyed.
Although he was never at ease with the French gratin, or upper crust, from her he picked up a comfortable familiarity with the Spanish aristocracy: it was of course Balenciaga who made the wedding dress of the marquesa’s great-grandaughter, Fabiola, when she married the king of the Belgians in 1960, and a few years later one of his models was astonished to see, on the salon’s white sofa, the taciturn Balenciaga laughing and chatting away with an elderly lady who turned out to be Victoria Eugenia, the former queen of Spain.
Through the marquesa, the twelve-year-old Balenciaga apprenticed with a San Sebastián tailor, then moved on to a tonier shop called New England, and to the new San Sebastián branch of the Grand Magasins du Louvre department store, which was patronized not only by the marquesa but by María Cristina, the dowager queen. By 1913 he was being sent to Paris as a buyer. After a short spell in Bordeaux to learn French, in 1918 he opened his first salon, C. Balenciaga, in San Sebastián, then went into a six-year partnership with two sisters who provided most of the backing. Balenciaga’s investment was 7,362 pesetas and 25 céntimos, the 25 cents recalling that if his reputation was growing, his finances were still tight. When the six-year contract ended in 1924, he was able to open a new house, Cristóbal Balenciaga, gradually creating branches in Madrid and Barcelona under his name or under variations of Eisa, a reworking of his mother’s maiden name.
The timing was just right. While most of Europe agonized in World War I, Spain, which remained neutral, flourished, especially San Sebastián, enriched by the wealth of Bilbao, a port and a banking and industrial center, and by the well-heeled of all nations who came to bask in its elegance and ease. Old-timers such as the duchess, who went to Paris each year to order 365 hats (366 in leap year), would disappear after the war, but the new crowd was avid and deeply attractive to Paris couturiers who, starting in l917, arrived with their collections. The major houses of Callot, Paquin, and Worth showed in such luxury hotels as the Maria Cristina, and Balenciaga saw, and possibly met, Chanel at San Sebastián’s casino. Most important, he began a lifelong friendship with Madeleine Vionnet, the first designer to use the bias cut on the body of a dress, fashion’s equivalent of inventing the wheel.
Balenciaga probably met Vionnet when she showed her collection to the Spanish court at San Sebastián in 1920. He was already buying her clothes for his shop on his Paris trips (a hasty working sketch on a piece of hotel stationery in the Arts Décoratifs archive in Paris also suggests that he was not above pinching her ideas), but when they met and she saw his work she encouraged him to create rather than adapt other people’s designs. They shared a stubborn and exalted view of clothes as a sort of second skin that sculpts, rather than encases, the body: the couturier as a builder, not a decorator. They were both brilliant technicians, Balenciaga the more versatile in that he was as expert at tailoring coats and suits as at cutting soft fabrics, and both saw the designer as a craftsman dealing with clients and not as a remote artist. “A couturier dresses human beings, not dreams,” Vionnet would say. Their friendship lasted until Balenciaga’s death, and when I met Vionnet in the late 1960s she was just back from a two-week stay in Balenciaga’s country house near Orléans to recover from bronchitis and was wearing a floor-length bias-cut wool crepe skirt and matching vest that he had made for her in bright red (her own palette tended to shades of beige).
They were of equal historical importance—if Dior later called Balenciaga “the master of us all,” he also said “no one has carried the art of dressmaking farther than Vionnet”—but she was a generation older, having been born in 1876, and was already approaching glory when they met. Their clothes were dissimilar, Vionnet specializing in richly simple Greek-style folds, a deliciously errant vestal look, but they shared ardor and integrity—“a dress must be sincere,” Vionnet said—and had so intense an understanding of fabrics that neither of them liked to sketch. “I hate sketching. Designers who sketch have no feeling for fabric,” Vionnet said. Instead, she draped her fabrics on a wooden doll 31.5 inches tall, and Givenchy told me that when she was very old and bedridden and Balenciaga came to visit, she would show him something she had just confected on the doll with the wish that it might be useful to him. “And Cristóbal, with that marvelous smile, would say to me, Isn’t it adorable that at her age this woman would continue to work and give me her models,” Givenchy said. “He had until the end of his life someone who counted enormously for him, and that was Madame Vionnet.”
To the young Balenciaga, Vionnet must have seemed like a favorite teacher, firm but kind, and indeed she had hoped to teach, but a neighbor pointed out to her father (her mother had run off) that further studies would mean more clothing bills, so at the age of ten she was yanked out of school and apprenticed to a dressmaker. “If I had become a professor I would just have had a brain,” she said many years later. “Instead I discovered my hands and learned to love them.” In England to pick up the language, she became an attendant in a lunatic asylum, then worked for five years in Kate Reilly’s dressmaking establishment on Dover Street in London. Returning to Paris, she was engaged by the prestigious Callot Soeurs, then hired away by Jacques Doucet, a very grand designer and collector (he was an early patron of the furniture designer Eileen Gray and the first owner of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), in order to modernize his house. It was there that she discovered that the bias cut, a version of which had been used only to line garments, could give fabrics a new fluidity: “I wanted it and found it,” she told me. “It seemed natural.” The vendeuses, she added, hated it. In 1912 she opened her own modest house on the Rue de Rivoli and in 1923 got backing to become the first couturier on the Avenue Montaigne.
The House of Vionnet, at number 50, towered over its neighbors and triumphed in the architectural press as a perfect example of steel and glass Art Deco. It had 1,900 employees and 43 ateliers. While the grand salon of a house like Callot was heavy and crowded with furniture, Vionnet had a vast clean space framed with arches bordered in Lalique glass. When it came to opening his Paris house, Balenciaga followed Vionnet in keeping his public rooms simple and his private studio strictly off-limits. He did not follow Vionnet’s more compassionate innovations—a free staff cafeteria, medical service, and child care as well as classes for those who, like her, had had to leave school too young. Since he shared her loathing for copyists, having himself been one on a modest scale, he adopted her practice of photographing each model with its number, flat police lineup pictures, though he did not, like Vionnet, put his thumbprint on the label of every dress he made.
Vionnet was stronger and more authoritative than the young Balenciaga—he would not have said “I have never seen a fabric that refused to obey me,” even though it was true—and it was her strength and encouragement that helped him free his fantasy and develop his prodigious technique.
Discovering his talents, the young Balenciaga had great success—by the age of twenty-one he is said to have dressed the queen of Spain—and success brought a confidence he lost in his later days when his sole, and impossible, rival was his glorious self. After each new collection in the 1950s and ’60s, people recalled, he would be tearful and tense because it hadn’t been up to his standard. In all, it was a dog’s life, he said after his retirement. But when he was young and imperfect, all he had to do was get better, and he did.
And he found love. Probably on a buying trip to Paris he met a charming and well-connected young man with sleek dark hair, Wladzio Jaworowski d’Attainville, with whom he would live for some twenty years. D’Attainville was Polish-French; his mother, according to a story in American Vogue in the 1940s, entertained in style and was photographed grandly under a portrait of Princess Ghika, her grandmother. Wladzio joined Balenciaga and Balenciaga’s sister and brother in the Spanish company, designed witty hats, and smoothly made contacts that Balenciaga, less experienced, was still awkward about.
Early Balenciaga is not exciting (his first extant design, made in 1912 when he was seventeen, is a stiff but correct floor-length black suit with a jabot of boned lace). He was forming the rock-solid base that made his later vanguard designs so appealing and convincing. And he knew intimately the needs of his well-off and conservative clientele.
By 1927, when he was important enough to have his portrait made, he did not commission a local but went to Paris and sat for Boris Lipnitzki, the fashionable celebrity photographer of Poiret, Schiaparelli, Cocteau, and Chanel. The resulting series shows a gracile, perfectly tailored, and easeful young man of great beauty, with fine hands, a long fastidious upper lip, and heavy brows crowning limpid and myopic dark eyes.
It was a golden new world, and there were cracks in it. The year that Balenciaga posed for Lipnitzki he opened a less expensive second house for a younger clientele in San Sebastián, since the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera, ruling as prime minister with the complicity of the king, had cut into the luxury trade by closing the casino. Worse, much worse, was to come. There is no conflict more dreadful than a civil war, and in Spain the tremors began soon after the Second Republic—the last freely elected Spanish government for forty years—took over in April 1931.
The economy, mismanaged by Primo de Rivera, was deeply in trouble: the peseta had lost nearly 50 percent of its value, unemployment was rising while industrial production fell, and the Morgan bank had cancelled a $60 million loan. Francisco Franco—Europe’s youngest general since Napoléon—was waiting in the wings.
Franco indicated that he would restore King Alfonso XIII, who had been best man at his wedding, and many early supporters believed that he would bring back the good old days, the sturdy status quo. Like most craftsmen in luxury trades, Balenciaga was as conservative as his patrons and—as he showed later during the Occupation of Paris—totally indifferent to politics. Franco detested the unruly Basques, displaying the gravest cruelty when he allowed his German allies to test their new aircraft by bombing Guernica and its sacred oak tree, symbol of Basque unity, on a sunny market day in April 1937. But Franco’s wife, the nearly aristocratic Carmen Polo, was a Balenciaga client from as early as 1933, when he made her a long bias-cut black faille gown for the ceremony at which her husband took command of the Balearic Islands. The last dress he ever made, weeks before his death in 1972, was her granddaughter’s wedding gown.
The houses of Balenciaga—he had opened branches in Madrid and Barcelona while continuing to live in San Sebastián—remained open during the sieges of both cities. In San Sebastián, which Franco bombed by air and sea, there was deadly street fighting and the stench of war invaded even the Maria Cristina hotel, scene of so many fashion shows, where it was claimed that Franquists used live bodies as sandbags. By mid-September 1936, refugees were fleeing by the thousands and Balenciaga was among them, surely not for political reasons but because he knew that luxury trades do not flourish during a civil war.
He decided to head for Paris with Nicolás and Virgilia Bizcarrondo, whom Vogue’s Bettina Ballard says he met in a bomb shelter but who were in fact neighbors in his apartment building. Nicolás, a militant Republican opposed to Franco, was a balding engineer with a knobby, pleasant face; his wife was comfortably plump and wealthy and had a sister living in Paris. Wladzio had his excellent social connections. So why not relocate?
The usual view is that the Balenciaga who left Spain in 1936 was a gifted tyro who bloomed in the creative air of Paris, but in truth he was already a seasoned success, forty-one years old. Legend also portrays him as a dreamy recluse remote from money matters, but he had proved his business skills by creating—and, when necessary, discarding—no fewer than seven houses during his Spanish years, shrewdly adapting from couture to semi-ready-to-wear as the times demanded. And anyway there was never a question of shutting down Balenciaga/Spain, or a doubt that he would return when the unpleasantness was over.
* * *
The Paris they found was nominally peaceful but so bestirred by economic and political problems that the word revolution was muttered, if not said aloud. The scandal caused by the financial outrages of the Stavisky affair in 1934 had revealed widescale corruption and was followed by a general strike, violent anti-Semitism, riots in the Place de la Concorde—the worst since the Commune of 1871—and the selection as prime minister a few months before Balenciaga arrived of Léon Blum, a man whose probity and humanity ensured that his tenure would be brief. Even the house of Chanel went on strike, its workers demanding that Mademoiselle receive their delegates. She refused on the grounds that the word delegate was unfamiliar to her. It was a tired, rotting world mad for something new. “It was this that made the thirties so memorable,” Janet Flanner wrote, “for what was new automatically became a fresh formula for new memories.” A good moment for a fresh face on the fashion scene.
Balenciaga found space on the third floor of 10 Avenue George V, a few blocks from Vionnet and next to Mainbocher, whose quarters he would take over after World War II. The first person he hired was a twenty-five-year-old vendeuse with brown hair, a competent air set off by a smile at once delighted and comforting, and a black order book from her previous job at her mother-in-law’s fashion house. Her name was Florette Chelot.
“I was recommended by a friend in the fabric business,” Florette told me. “I arrive, I find a very handsome and charming man who speaks French rather badly. He is in a big bare space which later became two workrooms, seated on a stool in front of a trestle table filled with swatches of fabric. He said, I am sorry I cannot offer you a chair because this stool and table is all there is. He didn’t even have any ateliers then.
“So we chatted and got to know each other. I told him about myself, that I knew the métier from my mother-in-law and I knew the business side from working with sales offices.” Her black book included such names as Mme César Ritz, Bloomingdales, and Harrods. “He immediately said fine and I said, If you agree, I’ll start making contacts with clients and buyers.” He agreed and offered her a 10 percent commission on sales.
“When he saw what I sold after the first collection he cut me down to five percent because he said otherwise I’d be earning more than he did.” In later years Balenciaga’s bookkeeper would tell Florette that her sales accounted for half the earnings of the couture house.
Florette was born Amélie Flore Delion in Burgundy, in the village of Égriselles-le-Bocage, where her mother ran a small hotel for commercial travelers and Florette went to the local school in her black sateen smock buttoned in the back and wooden shoes. “I loved my sabots, I used to admire my feet as I walked and decorate them with flowers. In the winter I used them as skis.” When the weather was fine the neighbors would sit outdoors and Florette would go from house to house and sing to them.
It was a sunny and loving childhood. Then her mother died in 1918 from Spanish flu: “I was happy until the age of seven” is how Florette put it. Her grieving father sold the hotel, bought another, and then died when she was eleven, leaving her in the charge of her older sister. She left school unwillingly and at fifteen was in Paris living in a pension her sister found on the Rue Eugène Carrière in Montmartre, where the girls had to cover their bodies in a gown when they took a bath and dinner was vegetable soup with no vegetables. She quickly found work as a telephonist at the new Paris buying office of the New York merchant Henri Bendel, although she had nothing much to recommend her aside from doggedness, a good nature, and tidy handwriting of which she remained proud all her life.
The very first day at work a charming older man of twenty-four named Pierre Chelot showed her how to plug the wires into the switchboard and how to address telephone operators. He became her Pygmalion and, in 1931, her husband, but at first he was simply her mentor. Pierre, nicknamed Payot, was the son of a top fitter at Callot Soeurs, where his father was a director, and had always worked on the edge of fashion. Employed by a silk maker in Lyons, he was charged with introducing a local seamstress, Yvette Labrousse, the recently crowned Miss France, to the Paris couture. She later married the Aga Khan and became one of Florette’s best clients.
Florette took night classes at Berlitz and in 1929 went briefly to England, where she improved her English by learning popular songs. “I cahnt geeve you enyseeng baht loove, babby,” she sang to me in her chirpy voice over lunch in a bistro near her flat on the Île St. Louis while telling about her stay in Sussex. Sometimes, she once said, she wished she had been an actress, and I could imagine her not as a leading lady but as the soubrette in an operetta, saucy and warmhearted. There was indeed a touch of theater in her Balenciaga days when, in shining her full attention on the client, she in turn became the focus for that client, as if she were onstage. She liked it and did it spectacularly well.
Payot saw to her education, even getting her to read Proust, and introduced her to his mother, who renamed her Florette and whom she adored. “You who have a family cannot imagine what it was like for me to find one,” she told me. Henriette Chelot, a fine-looking woman in her Callot dresses and Hellstern shoes, might have hoped that her only son would make a more advantageous match, but even when Florette fell ill with tuberculosis of the uterus and became unable to bear children, Mme Chelot encouraged the marriage, gave the young couple a big engagement reception at the Hotel George V, and took them into her home at St. Cloud. And it was thanks to her that Florette became a vendeuse in the haute couture.
The old house of Callot Soeurs, with its crowded showroom in which furniture and rugs were on sale as well as clothes, was fading, so Mme Chelot and a friend opened their own small house, Marie-Henriette, off the Place Vendôme with a modern salon, Coromandel screens like Chanel’s, and a good clientele from Callot. There was one fatal problem: it was 1936 and the rioting in the nearby Place de la Concorde was scaring off foreign clients and buyers. Marie-Henriette closed and Florette went to see Balenciaga at the Avenue George V.
When Balenciaga opened, there were three vendeuses: Florette; the much older Marthe, who had dressed the relentlessly stylish Mrs. Harrison Williams at Paquin; and Maria. In couture tradition, each house had a vendeuse who had fallen on hard times and was invited everywhere because she had had malheurs and knew everyone. Maria was Balenciagas grande dame qui a eu des malheurs, a Spanish friend of his who had had an unhappy affair with a toreador. She wasn’t much at selling but she got around. Since they worked on commission the vendeuses were rivals. Florette was a very nice woman, but she could be tough when necessary, which was all too often.
By house custom the vendeuses were given two black work dresses a year from the previous collection, but they had to pay for the fabric. Their job was to sell, obviously, but it was a job that required a certain complicity with the client, which some carried to a form of mimesis or even—odd in view of the clients’ wealth and frequent bad manners—pity. Much later, the flinty-eyed Odette, for example, would remark on how sorry she felt for Liz Taylor, all dressed up and tearful as she waited in their hotel suite for Richard Burton to down another last drink. Florette had a favorite client, the Baroness Alain de Rothschild, but she served all comers equally. During our talks she never said “I sold a client a dress,” but instead “I made her a dress” or “I dressed her.”
“Just selling isn’t interesting, it sounds like a grocery store. A good vendeuse knows how to win the confidence and fidelity of her client. We were part of their lives, we often knew their husbands, their children, their best friends. They knew we wanted them to be at their best.” If they weren’t, Balenciaga blamed the vendeuse.
The directrice of the new house, brought in by d’Attainville, was the pretty Baroness d’Echtall, who was replaced after World War II by the redoubtable Mlle Renée Tamisier with her firm ways and granitic smile. It was Renée who ran the day-to-day operations, translating Balenciaga’s need for privacy into a house policy of paranoia. There were three ateliers: in tailoring, Denis, who remained until 1954, and in soft fabrics, Claude and Suzanne, who were there until the end. (Employees tended to stay as long with Balenciaga as they could.)
Balenciaga always chose his house models himself, the first and favorite being the alarming Colette, who only stopped modeling in 1954: bony and long-waisted (unusual for a French woman of that time), she would crash into the showroom like an invading army. Her jutting pelvic bones inspired Balenciaga’s early use of padded hips, while her long neck and curved spine were the origin of his famous set-back neckline and bloused back, which, with a semi-fitted front, was to be a boon to so many aging women over the coming years. (As Gloria Guinness later pointed out, the framelike neckline allowed women and their pearls to breathe, while the shortened sleeve uncovered their bracelets and the unemphatic waistline permitted them to “believe in a figure that perhaps they did not have”).
Like Vionnet, Balenciaga wanted his models to be remote rather than appealing, gazing over the heads of clients and casually carrying a card on which the number of the outfit—unlike other designers, he never gave his clothes names—was displayed. He invented a signature loping walk for them, long strides, torso tilted back, pelvis thrust forward. “They walk with a pleasant swagger—the likable swagger of the aristocrat,” Women’s Journal commented in 1939.
I recognized the walk at once when I was strolling one day with the former Renée Bousquet, then nearly eighty. She was Basque and still a teenager when she left Grès, where she was not happy, for Balenciaga, where she was. In those early days it was an easygoing and happy place. “It was a family,” she said. “The Bizcarrondos were des gens parfaits, d’Attainville was adorable and animated the place, Balenciaga was very discreet and never forward in any way. He knew how to do everything, and he did.” His sense of humor in those times was a bit rough. When young Renée complained to him about a photographer’s wandering hands he simply burst out laughing, and when she told him she was leaving to marry a businessman, Henri Le Roux, instead of offering good wishes he told her she could come back if it didn’t work out. She did come back, some years later, but just to have Balenciaga meet her children.
M. Bizcarrondo took care of the house’s finances; his wife was a discreet and useful presence who helped Balenciaga smooth off his rough edges and who, after the success of the first collection, wrapped and delivered the orders with Florette. Although older than the Chelots, the Bizcarrondos often went boating with them (the Chelots were enthusiastic canoers—Payot even ordered a canoe from Canada—preferring the early spring when business was slow and the rivers of central France ran high). The Bizcarrondos, people said, were the heart of the house.
The Chelots were even friendly with Balenciaga. “In those days he was charming, we were a team,” Florette said. They dined often at Ramponneau, across the street from where Balenciaga and d’Attainville lived at 28 Avenue Marceau (the Bizcarrondos lived at number 26). “He liked his food, especially fish, which had to be perfect. He didn’t talk of much besides couture but he liked Payot, who spoke fluent Spanish, and I was quiet.” Before dinner he made them his dry martinis. “It was Balenciaga who taught me how. He would take a napkin on which he placed the ice cubes to dry them off so that there was no excess water. They were almost pure gin. Payot didn’t much like them. I did.”
The new house had been registered at the clerk’s office of the Seine commercial court on July 7, 1937, modestly capitalized at 100,000 francs with Bizcarrondo holding 75 percent of the shares, d’Attainville 20 percent, and Balenciaga 5 percent. Its first collection was shown the following month, attended mostly by the press and department store buyers because private clients had no idea who Cristóbal Balenciaga was.
They soon found out who he was, but what he was became increasingly harder to define as his work became more original and unclassifiable. The default term is that he was very Spanish. Jessica Daves, the editor of Vogue, referred vaguely but authoritatively in a New York Times story on the closing of his house in 1968 to his “Spanish way of thinking.” Diana Vreeland, writing to “Darling Mona” (Bismarck) in 1973 about her Spanish-themed show at the Metropolitan Museum, “The World of Balenciaga,” said she had “Goyas, Valesquez [sic], Picasso, the armour of Charles I on a huge white horse—Flamenco music plays faintly and one hears heels and castanets clicking…” Marie-Andrée Jouve, in her 1989 book, detailed the influence of Goya and Velásquez and Zurbarán; Oscar de la Renta, who had worked briefly as a sketch artist for Balenciaga in Madrid, said that his work “remained to the core very Spanish.” De la Renta was talking about the exhibition of which he was honorary president, “Balenciaga: Spanish Master,” shown in New York and San Francisco in 2010–2011. The show’s curator and Balenciaga expert, Hamish Bowles, omitted the castanets but showed dresses before a photomontage of Getaria and made juxtapositions with Spanish painters, including the abstract shapes of a Miró with the famous four-sided envelope dress of 1967.
“To do a show based on the influence of Spain on Balenciaga is an idea like any other—one has to find a title,” Givenchy said of the exhibition. Of course Balenciaga was Spanish just as Dior was French and, for that matter, Ralph Lauren is American, but sometimes the Spanish label seems to be just that: a reductive way of positioning a talent too original for classification. He was Spanish, but above all he was Balenciaga.
Beginning with his “Infanta” dress in 1939 he did indeed call on obvious Spanish references from the bullring, from regional costume, from famous paintings. But he hated bullfights and didn’t seem to have gone to the Prado except for one recorded visit, preferring flea markets where his excellent eye trumped the lack of education that made museums so trying. The Infanta dress, it can be argued, was a way of helping the press to define a newcomer, and if over the years he showed clothes based on a bullfighter’s hat or a flamenco dress, it was rare. As Pamela Golbin, who curated the 2006 Balenciaga retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, puts it, “He did do boleros, but in each show there were 150 or 200 pieces and if there were three or four boleros that didn’t mean it was all straight from Spain.”
Still, like all couturiers, Balenciaga needed the occasional showpiece as a talking point, and it was often based on a Spanish idea. “Don’t order that, it’s just for show,” he would sometimes tell his dear Spanish friend the Marquesa de Llanzol, and he may have been talking about the bullfighter’s jacket that he showed in 1946, which she ordered anyway. It was indeed a showstopper and a clever choice for that year, when the short jacket responded to postwar fabric restrictions, and its heavy embroidery was what he had been doing a great deal of under the sumptuary laws the German Occupation had imposed. It was surely intended as an attention-getting exception, not a trend.
Balenciaga’s own private collection of fashion books and fabrics ranged widely over eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Since most of the antique costumes he owned had been picked up in Spanish flea markets, they are weighted toward Andalusian, Basque, and other regional designs, but he also found a fine black jacket made by a Philadelphia store called Homer LeBoutillier in around 1890, bright blue French breeches, or culottes, from 1785, a priest’s maniple, a piece from a richly decorated horse’s harness, and a pair of dainty embroidered mules.
Among other influences that have been discerned: Japanese woodcuts, paintings by the Impressionists, Bronzino and Lorenzo Lotto, and even George Cukor’s 1934 film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott: “I found the clothes very pretty, particularly a group of long-sleeved, tight-bodiced at-home dresses that reminded me of ‘Little Women,’” Bettina Ballard wrote of the first collection.
That show, relatively conventional and budget-conscious, introduced Paris to Balenciaga’s fine technique and impeccable taste. “The young Spanish couturier Balenciago [sic] produced a notable first collection,” said Women’s Wear Daily, while the New York Herald Tribune detected a Goya note and L’Officiel de la Haute Couture thought it rather Grecian. “Knowing journalists were already saying that this quiet Spaniard was bringing a stability and elegance to a disordered fashion scene,” the English journalist Madge Garland recalled much later.
The buyers bought, the magazines took pictures, Florette and Mme Bizcarrondo worked late to wrap and make deliveries, helped by a seamstress. It was a quiet triumph of just the right sort for someone who knew better than to try to rock the French fashion scene. “The first collection had nothing eccentric, it was sober and very well done,” Florette said. “But,” she added, “I found it a little bit dull.”
Copyright © 2013 by Mary Blume
Meet the Author
A culture columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris from the 1960s until 2009, Mary Blume has also contributed to numerous magazines. A collection of her Herald Tribune pieces, A French Affair, was published in 1999.
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The book is based on an interview with one of the women who worked with Balenciaga for many years, and is full of little details about Balenciaga the man and Balenciaga the fashion house. One of the best things about the book is that the photo of an item appears right after the description of it, so there is no going back and forth to a photo section. I remember Balenciaga's fashions from when I was young, and although I couldn't understand it at the time, the engineering that was part of his ensembles made each one memorable. I recommend this book for anyone interested in fashion, from those who merely wear great clothes to those who are fanatical about creating them.