Cristóbal Balenciaga: The true story of one of fashion’s most famous figures

22 Jan 2024 | |By Anna Solomon

As a new Disney+ series about Balenciaga drops – the first of many fashion-focused biographical dramas to be released this year – we take a look at the life and legacy of the seminal designer 

In the last few years, we’ve become obsessed with fashion designers. Hot on the heels of Netflix’s miniseries Halston and 2021’s The House of Gucci film, we’ve had BBC’s Coco Chanel: Unbuttoned and a full retrospective on the designer at the V&A. This year, the lives of Christian Dior, John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld will be laid bare in The New Look, High & Low: John Galliano and Kaiser Karl respectively. People just can’t get enough of the fashion biopic formula: glamorous visuals alongside the high drama that so often comes with a career intertwined with the upper echelons of society. 

Kicking off 2024’s flurry of biographical TV and cinema is Cristóbal Balenciaga – a sensuous period drama about the fashion designer and founder of the eponymous brand, now streaming on Disney+. The series, which features Spanish actor Alberto San Juan as the titular character, is utterly gorgeous, shot as if through a golden filter with a shallow focus showcasing the exquisite details of the breathtaking couture featured (in particular, on sleeves, to which Balenciaga paid astonishing attention to detail). 

But Balenciaga’s life didn’t always look like this. The designer was born into obscurity in the Basque town of Getaria, the son of a fisherman and a seamstress, and spent most of his childhood at work with his mother until, at the age of 12, he became a tailor’s apprentice. A few years later, a local noblewoman, the Marchioness de Casa Torres, became Balenciaga’s first patron and customer and it was she who sent Balenciaga to Madrid to undertake formal training. 

The show does not dwell on Balenciaga’s early life, however, instead focusing on a formative period of his career: the moment at which, despite his success dressing aristocrats and royalty in Madrid and San Sebastián, he moved to Paris in pursuit of bigger and better things. It is 1937, and Balenciaga is presenting his first haute couture collection: it’s a seminal moment, as it is by no means a given that Spanish trends will stand up in the world of Parisian high fashion. “Fashion isn’t what it used to be,” one journalist murmurs disapprovingly during the show, signifying the shift from the supremacy of brands like Dior and Givenchy towards the fresh influence of Balenciaga. (That said, Chanel was a proponent of Balenciaga’s, calling him “a couturier in the truest sense of the word”, while “the others are simply fashion designers”).

A rocky arrival in Paris was only the beginning of Balenciaga’s trials, however. For several of the years he spent here, the city was under Nazi occupation and, as a closeted gay man, he was particularly vulnerable; as one of his business partners reminds him, however, “things aren’t better in Spain”. Despite the tumultuous nature of the mid-century, Balenciaga ultimately comes to the conclusion that his work – and bringing beauty to an increasingly ugly world – is worthy and important. 

This revelation takes form in Balenciaga’s evolution as a designer and the formation of his signature style – in particular, his experimentation with radical silhouettes. This is recounted in the Balenciaga series via the narrative framework of Balenciaga giving a rare interview to The Times’ first fashion editor, Prudence Glynn (Gemma Whelan of Game of Thrones).

However, it wouldn’t be until after the war, in the 1950s, that Balenciaga truly conquered the fashion world. In 1959 he pivoted to the empire waistlines that would dominate the 1960s; this was the designer’s heyday, during which he created jaw-dropping, sculptural couture that set a new bar. However, as shown in the series, with this success came pressure to create ready-to-wear collections, rather than just custom couture – something Balenciaga feels goes against everything he believes. In a world where the popularity of polyester is on the ascent, he no longer knows where he stands.

In light of which, one can’t help but wonder whether the series is subtly questioning how Balenciaga would feel about the state of his namesake brand today – about the crisp packet handbags, towel skirts, and bondage teddy bears it has gone viral for of late. At one point, Balenciaga says to his collaborator and on-and-off lover Ramón: “I’m sure that without me, Maison Balenciaga can’t go on. What sense would that make?” When Ramón reminds Balenciaga that “Yves Saint Laurent took over after Dior,” he retorts: “I’ve always found that disgusting. How can someone sign with my name?”

Balenciaga’s is a gilded story populated by glittering cast members like the Queen of Belgium (whose wedding dress was designed by Balenciaga) and Audrey Hepburn, another client of the designer’s. It doesn’t draw in viewers with the salacious clashes of House of Gucci or American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace – rather, watching Cristóbal Balenciaga feels like a luxury, an indulgence, just like the exquisite garments around which the series revolves.

Cristóbal Balenciaga is on Disney+ now.

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