Balenciaga: “The Master of Us All”

by Benjamin Schwarz

March 2013 ATLANTIC

lisa-fonssagrives-in-coat-by-balenciaga-photo-by-irving-penn-paris-vogue-sept-1-1950Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972) was the greatest couturier of the golden age of Paris couture. He was a couturier’s couturier—Christian Dior acknowledged him as “the master of us all”; Coco Chanel said, “Only he is capable of cutting material, assembling a creation and sewing it by hand. The others are simply fashion designers.” Severe, uncompromising, Balenciaga scorned publicity and the social scene; during his 50-year career, he gave no interviews.

So he was always a mystery—in fact, he was at times rumored not to exist. Although a number of books have assessed his body of work (most successfully Marie-Andrée Jouve and Jacqueline Demornex’s Balenciaga), until now he has eluded probing and discerning biographical treatment. Blume, a cultural columnist for the Paris-based International Herald Tribune from the 1960s to 2009, interviewed Balenciaga’s former clients, his fellow designers, and—most important—his chief vendeuse and adviser, Florette Chelot, to reveal the day-to-day workings of his studios and salon as well as the subtle evolution of his lines.

The result is not—given Balenciaga’s lifelong secretiveness and remoteness—a chatty tell-all (although Blume does confirm the open secret of Balenciaga’s homosexuality); rather, this thoughtful and stylishly written book is perhaps the most serious and intelligent biography of a fashion designer ever written.

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