1917 - 2017

Cristóbal Balenciaga: The Early Years 

Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Cristóbal Balenciaga Atelier opening in San Sebastián. Learn about the origins of the couturier and the influence of Spain.

Cristóbal Balenciaga: The Early Years 
2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Cristóbal Balenciaga Atelier opening in San Sebastián, Spain, and the 80th anniversary of his famous Paris salon. This exhibit examines the career of this couturier to whom Dior called "The Master of us all", one of the most important figures in 20th century's fashion history, from his beginnings in San Sebastian to his first steps in Paris. 

Humble origins

Cristóbal Balenciaga was born in 1895 in Getaria, a small fishermen village of the Basque Coast, in the north of Spain. A community to which he always felt very attached, and to which he would return regularly throughout his whole life.

View of the Aldamar Palace, a spectacular 19th-century villa, annexed to the current museum, and the summer residence of the Marquesses of Casa Torres. It was here that the young Balenciaga embarked on his journey into the fascinating world of fashion and dressmaking.

A key figure in his life

His mother, Martina Eizaguirre, was a seamstress for the Marquesses of Casa Torres; a key figure throughout his life, it was she who taught him to sew.

The Marchioness, a highly elegant and socially prominent woman, was one of Balenciaga's earliest supporters.

Suit, 1912, San Sebastian

This is the oldest known model to date made by Balenciaga. The couturier’s training and his mastery in dressmaking from a tender age are evident in this tailored suit worn by Salvadora Egaña Balenciaga on her honeymoon.

This balanced, simple garment maintains the characteristics of the modernist suits of the turn of the century, in which the waist and the collar were stiffened with boning, creating a silhouette of sinuous contours. Nonetheless, this suit exemplifies the practical fashion trend originating in England, in which the tailored suit became the perfect ally for journeys, morning walks and for women who were beginning to enter the workforce.

The Beginnings in San Sebastian
Cristóbal Balenciaga began his venture in the early 20th century in San Sebastián, a city that was flourishing due to the seasonal presence of the Spanish court and the boom in tourism all along the Basque coast. At the age of 22, Balenciaga opened his first business. He lived in the city from 1907 (according to municipal records), and had been trained at some of the most important establishments with links to Parisian fashion.

San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastián is a resort town on the Bay of Biscay in Spain’s mountainous Basque Country. It’s known for Playa de la Concha and Playa de Ondarreta, beaches framed by a picturesque bayfront promenade.

"Cristobal Balenciaga", his first brand

In 1917, the name 'Cristóbal Balenciaga', at the address 2 Calle Vergara, was entered in the industrial register under the title of "modistas" (dressmaker), with the highest category tax contribution.

Balenciaga's first workshop in San Sebastián was located on the first floor of this very building, at the corner of Vergara and Avenida de la Libertad.

Advertisement in the journal 'La Voz de Gipuzkoa' in March 1917, seeking staff for his first atelier.

A business in transformation

In 1924, Balenciaga moved to 2 Avenida de la Libertad and listed his business under the name of "Cristóbal Balenciaga". In March 1927, he followed a strategy of diversification and created a second brand "Martina Robes et manteaux". Named after his mother Martina Eizaguirre, the business was located on 10 Calle Oquendo, 1st floor. In October that same year, he changed this name to "EISA Costura" after his mother's surname, "Eizaguirre".

1927: Coat, San Sebastian

In this coat, made in San Sebastian, Balenciaga evoked the lines that define the Japanese kimono, one of the most influential garments in European fashion of the twenties.

In perfect tune with the aesthetics of those years, the wide turndown collar and the sleeve cuffs were adorned with ermine fur.

1927: Evening Dress, San Sebastian

This dress is proof of the influence that French fashion had on the young Cristóbal Balenciaga.The couturier regularly travelled to Paris from the start of his career. There, he learned about the work of the big designers, and purchased their models to then disassemble them and study in detail how they were cut.

During the 1920s, Balenciaga received the authorisation of Lanvin to reproduce some of their models in Spain, such as this long, loose-fitting dress with évasée skirt and no seam at the waist. The dress is cut from three panels at the front and three at the back. It's salmon-coloured silk tulle yoke is cut diagonally in different directions at the front and the back, to chest height. The skirt is finished at the base with black silk tulle. The dress is completed with transparent black silk tulle.

Decorated with ribbon appliqués in spiral form, narrower on the bodice and becoming wider below a seam at the hip.

1930: Jacket, San Sebastian

This piece, made in the workshops of San Sebastian, displays a complex pattern. The back and the sleeves are cut in one piece, reproducing the typical sleeve of Chinese clothing, which finishes at the cuff in the shape of a horse’s hoof. In his later creations, Balenciaga would prefer the French three-quarter-length sleeve which showed the wrists.

This nod to Oriental historical fashion contrasts with the ribbons that wrapped around the waist and ended in a bow – very much in fashion in the thirties – and attempts to narrow the waist to the maximum, creating a very feminine silhouette.

1933: Wedding Dress, San Sebastian

This dress was made in the workshop of EISA in San Sebastian. At the express wish of the bride, Carmen Alústiza, the gown had to differ in all of the details that traditionally defined wedding dresses. For this reason, the style and the fabric that Balenciaga chose were in total harmony with the models in vogue presented by the fashion magazines. The mantelet and picture hat which completed the dress were must-have accessories.

The long wedding dress is cut below the bust and at the waist. It has an independent long-sleeved bodice with jewel neckline, over which the dress is placed with two bodices sewn together: one with thin straps and the other, the outer bodice, with wide gathered straps that join at the back. The dress hugs the waist with a belt lined with the same fabric and secured with a buckle. The undergarment, cut at the waist and with a V-neck, has a straight strap at the back and darts to take in the chest. Fastens with hooks on the left side.

The dress hugs the waist with a belt lined with the same fabric and secured with a buckle.

Expanding the Business

Of the two businesses that coexist in San Sebastián, 'Cristóbal Balenciaga' has had a constant presence since 1937, the year in which Cristóbal moved to Paris and opened 'Balenciaga'. 'Eisa Costura' diversified geographically to Madrid (1933) and Barcelona (1935) using the name 'eisa be', with its branch in San Sebastián, at 2 Avenida de la Libertad, serving as its headquarters.

Circa 1935: Evening Coat, San Sebastian

Fascinated by English tailoring, Balenciaga was also deeply influenced by the great couturiers of Paris. He attended to the tastes of his clients. He in particular admired the work of Gabrielle Chanel, Madame Vionnet and Louise Boulanger.

This coat is one of the few remaining garments with the EISA B.E. label, used by Cristóbal Balenciaga in his houses in San Sebastian, Madrid and Barcelona between 1933 and 1936. The coat shows the influence that Madame Vionnet had in the master’s training, both in the patterns and in the outer finish.

1936: Dress, San Sebastian

Cristóbal Balenciaga gave this dress as a present to his cousin Vicenta Eizaguirre for her wedding day. Structurally, it is a typical dress of the thirties, where a precise cut recovers the features of femininity, forgotten in the twenties. However, the singularity of this dress comes from the blue colour chosen by Balenciaga: a totally novel colour, taking into account that white and black were the sole colours used in wedding gowns. The dress is completed with a mantilla, an essential element in more traditional wedding dresses.

The mid-calf-length dress is cut at the waistline. The jewel-neck bodice fastens down the left front with self-fabric buttons. The back, cut in one piece, prolongs the shoulder line to form a bow at the front. The sleeves are reinforced with shoulder pads, are long and narrow at the cuff. The skirt has no side seams. It hugs the body with darts at the sides and gathering at the front, in horizontal lines that become a decorative motif.

1938: Dress, San Sebastian

The structure of the dress coincides with the models of the thirties. The tendency to leave the back of the dresses loose is obvious in this model, which, masterfully assembled, announces the semi-fitted line later designed by Balenciaga.

The knee-length V-neck dress is cut at waistline, and fastens at the front with buttons and press-studs. The panels that make up the front are bias cut and extend on either side to form the sleeves. The back has a central piece and side pieces that also extend to the sleeves. Gathered at the shoulder, the sleeves open at the end like a frill. The back, blouse-like on the outside, is adjusted on the inside with a loose lining and two straps. The full skirt is gathered at the centre of the front and at the back. The skirt is hemmed in beige silk crepe.

Success in Paris
Cristóbal Balenciaga left Spain during the Civil War and settled in Paris at the age of 42, where he opened a store at 10 Avenue George V, naming it 'Balenciaga'. From his first collection, he was immediately hailed as a success by the international fashion media.

The Spanish influence

Balenciaga was a couturier with more than 20 years of experience when he arrived in Paris. His technical perfection to creativity formed aesthetic influences and created the brand's unique client experiences, all of them key aspects to understand its upward trajectory and consecration that could only take place in the fashion capital of the world.

In his Paris collections, Balenciaga presented an aesthetic clearly influenced by Spanish popular dress and art.

1945: Dress, San Sebastian

Made in Spain, it coincides with the models used at the time, in which the shoulders were very prominent, in accordance with the military ambience of those years. The decoration evokes traditional Spanish clothing related to the world of the majos. Just like the jackets of the majos, the decoration is concentrated on the neck, lapels and shoulders. The velvet polka dots recall tassels on a macramé mesh that covered the bodies of the majas.

This mid-calf-length dress is cut below the waist. The bodice is loose, with a turndown collar and lapels. Fastens at the front with self-fabric buttons. The skirt, gathered at the waist, is made of four panels. The entire bodice is adorned with smooth velvet polka-dot appliqués, more concentrated at the neck, lapels and shoulders. The dress hugs the waist with a black silk taffeta belt.

1946: 'Bolero', San Sebastian

Balenciaga was familiar with Spanish fashion from other eras. His inspiration often came from historical clothing, which reinterpreted and adapted to his own designs. This short jacket, also known as a bolero or shrug, is particularly associated with the eighteenth-century aesthetic of the majos. Its style and decoration blend with the marked and rounded shoulders of the 1940s. It is a magnificent accessory for evening dresses.

1946: Jacket, Paris

Made in Paris for the February 1946 collection, model number 113. It is a magnificent piece embroidered by Lesage, a close collaborator of the Balenciaga house. Also known as “La Perse”, it is identical to the model held in the Nederlans Kostuummuseum in The Hague, property of the Dutch concert pianist Else Rijkens. It was worn with a black dress and a matching hat in embroidered satin.

A jacket to accompany a party dress. The front is ivory satin and the back is black crepe. Reinforced with shoulder pads. Short, below the bustline, with V-neck and collar with lapels. Fastens at the front with two buttons and a tied with the pieces that extend from the sides.

Embroidered with chenille thread, acetate sequins, beads and twisted golden thread to form floral motifs of oriental influence.

1947: No. 7 Dress, San Sebastian

From the beginning, Balenciaga creations stood out for their simplicity and impeccable cut, combined with his daring colour combinations or the Spanish inspiration of his models, which was as surprising as it was exotic for the expert public of Paris.

This model number 7 was made in Spain for the 1947 winter collection in line with the style of the 1940s: long skirt, narrow waist and prominent, reinforced shoulders. Balenciaga’s collections from this decade stood out for their numerous goyesque references.

The mid-calf-length dress is cut at waistline. The fitted bodice, with collar and lapel, fastens at the front with self-fabric buttons. Kimono sleeves. The skirt is made with three gores at the front and back and fastens on the left side with a gold metallic zip.

Decorated with rich embroidery in floral and vegetable motifs, more concentrated on the lapels, shoulders and the lower part of the skirt.

1947: Jacket, San Sebastian

This jacket, also called a shrug or bolero, is a beautiful example of those presented by the couturier in his 1947 winter collection. Balenciaga was inspired by the short bullfighter jackets, characterized by their style and by the intricate decoration in braids and beads, inherited from the 18th-century clothing of the majos.

Short jacket with square collar. The panels come to a peak at the front. Three-quarter-length sleeves. Adorned with piping and glass-paste beading, creating floral and heart-shaped motifs. The front and sleeves are decorated with tassels.

Adorned with piping and glass-paste beading, creating floral and heart-shaped motifs.

1948: Bodice, San Sebastian

This beautifully decorated garment shows Balenciaga’s passion for ornate embroidery. In this case, the metallic threads reflect a clear Spanish influence. Regarding the decoration, the shape and the length, this blouse is very similar to the bullfighter’s jacket. The abundance of gold reminds us of the rich liturgical clothing of the Renaissance and Spanish Baroque.

The jacket is short to the waist, with a round neck at front and back, and turndown collar. The bodice, with short sleeves, is fitted with darts and fastens at the front with buttons. Embroidered with gold metallic-thread piping filled with gold, glass-paste tube beads to create floral motifs.

The metallic threads reflect a clear spanish influence.

1953: Dress, San Sebastian

This glamorous dress, made in the EISA workshop in Madrid, reflects the phase in which Balenciaga contrasted different coloured fabrics. The references to Spanish clothing are present in this piece, seen not only in the layers of lace, highlighted against a shiny satin base, but also in the stole that covers the shoulders and is decorated with fans and castanets.

Long dress cut at waistline, reinforced on the chest with metallic boning sewn into the lining. The pale-pink satin bodice is fitted with vertical darts and has a sweetheart neckline with strap. The full skirt is gathered at the waist. The dress fastens on the left side with a metallic zip. Complemented with a stole that covers the shoulders.

A good fashion designer should be an architect of forms, painter of colors, musician of harmony and philosopher of measurement.

Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Museo Balenciaga
Credits: Story

Cristóbal Balenciaga: The Early Years

Organiser: Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa
Based on:
- Arzalluz, Miren. LA FORJA DEL MAESTRO, Editorial Nerea S.A. San Sebastián, 2010
- AAVV. BALENCIAGA, Editorial Nerea S.A. San Sebastián, 2011
Curator: Igor Uria

© Fundación Cristóbal Balenciaga

Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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