Balenciaga Retrospective

- By Leena Sanzgiri – 

Cristobal Balenciaga, Nicolas Ghesquière, Jennifer Connelly

Left: Cristobàl Balenciaga and his 1967 wedding gown. Right: Nicolas Ghesquière and his take on Cristobal's design, seen on Jennifer Connelly.

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It’s the biggest precipice between failure and success, legacy and expectation, thrill and fear for a young designer when the reins of an established fashion label are passed along with the elusive title of Creative Director. The transitional challenge of marrying an accurate instinct for the contemporary with respectful allegiance to a grand couturier’s visions is what often makes and breaks the most promising careers in the industry. Imagine, then, the enormity of the task at hand for the then 25-year-old Nicolas Ghesquière in 1997 when the responsibility of continuing the sartorial trajectory of Cristobàl Balenciaga—the man who even rival Christian Dior had to admit was “the master of us all”—was placed upon his shoulders.

We know now, of course, that Ghesquière managed to seamlessly assume the couture cloak of his predecessor, all the while creating his own distinct aesthetic as one to watch amongst his ready-to-wear peers.  “Smart” seems an overly elementary summation of Ghesquière’s choices that have made him the king of the modern-day avant-garde, and yet it works. The design of the Lariat, the It-bag that combined motorcycle-cool with Hollywood sensationalism and skyrocketed sales in 2001? Smart. The choice of Charlotte Gainsbourg—daughter of the iconic Jane Birkin and thus a natural bridge to vintage fashion eras—as a muse? Smart. The fact that today, the classic girl will covet Balenciaga blazers, the bohemian girl will adore Balenciaga scarves, and the edgy girl will require Balenciaga everything? Very, very smart.

Balenciaga Metallic Leggings, Spring 2007, Balenciaga Blazer Fall 2007

As we transition our wardrobes from spring trends into fall, reflecting on the magnitude of the fashion impact of both of these men in their respective times couldn’t be more—well, timely. Arguably as a direct reaction to his explosive, futuristic 2007 collections (ahem, did we all know that we needed metal-plated leggings and knee-length leather vests before that?), Ghèsquiere’s forward-thinking pieces have come to be the unparalleled standard of commercially viable edge that maintains a powerful sway over the desires of today’s best trendsetters.

This was apparent as usual in Spring 2012, but the season also saw Cristobàl’s historical, trademark silhouettes making reinvented appearances on the runway from unexpected sources. Designers ranging in style from the minimalism of Phoebe Philo at Céline to the surrealism of Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons adopted the classics of the Balenciaga heritage: sweepingly crafted balloon skirts, meticulously executed peplum details, and laser-cut, calf-length A-line coats. The result was a season that was indelibly, expansively marked by the finest signatures of both masters.

Cristobal Balenciaga Sketch, Oscar de la Renta, Balenciaga Evening Gown, Rick Ownes

Fittingly then, as we introduce the best of Fall 2012 to you over the coming months, we first turn to the Balenciaga F/W ’12 collection to begin to gauge the pulse of the upcoming season. Ghesquière played with his go-to bag of tricks for melding past, present, and future: exaggerated shoulders, innovative textures, and a dramatic “hook look” exuding humor and wit (in this case, a series of sweatshirts emblazoned with double-take-worthy catchphrases).  The designer varied the looks according to positions he imagined for a company entitled Balenciaga, Inc.—senior executives, managers, interns, and techies. The executive woman was elegant and dressy; she wore latex-lined suede coats over silk dresses and sheer skirts punctuated by metallic borders. Middle managers showcased print and embroidery, with brocaded leather jackets paired with flat-front A-line skirts. The interns and techies brought forth the youth quotient, the former sporting the aforementioned sweatshirts over high-collared ruffled blouses and slouchy trousers, the latter showcasing metallic parachute pants paired with a new take on the classic raincoat trench.

The overarching translation for fall? Keep the Cristobàl silhouettes you may have opted for from other designers in spring, and update them with Ghesquière’s prescription of fresh metallics and brocades, latex outerwear, and ladylike-plus-rock-and-roll layering that will surprise and delight you with an eclectic versatility to suit both your professional and personal life. Smart. Very, very smart.

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Leena Sanzgiri is a Manhattan-based management consultant from Dubai, where she grew up loving fashion, art, music, and theater. She strives to balance writing, traveling, cooking, painting, socializing, and hunting for vintage finds with watching abnormal amounts of reality television. Stay tuned for her forthcoming personal blog and for more posts on www.oliviapalermo.com, or follow her on Twitter: @leenasanzgiri

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