When Cristobal Balenciaga retired in 1968 he had already earned a reputation for being a bit stuffy and behind the times. While he dominated the 1950s the next decade saw a more spirited turn in fashion as ascending youth and street influences made his aristocratic posturing appear pompous and his stoic structures seem dowdy. A new generation of designers ventured where Balenciaga would not and the master lost his ground to the likes of Cardin, Saint Laurent and Courreges who were setting a new direction for fashion in the modern age. And when Balenciaga died in 1972 the house that beared his name, like many other great houses founded by brilliant dead designers, was chucked into fashion limbo.
Upon his death Balenciaga’s family sold the business to Hoescht AG, a German chemical company who presumably bought it for its fragrances. Under their management Balenciaga’s fashion prerogative diminished. Once a fashion leader it was licensed into an unremarkable purveyor of abutting double B monogrammed accessories and just-fashionable-enough bourgeois classics. By 1978 it was lost not only among new French names but formidable talents from Italy, The United States, and very quickly Japan. The glory days of Balenciaga were long past and wouldn’t return for another 20 years.
It would be very simple to dismiss the output of the house during this time as the runoff of a disinterested chemical company. You could very easily cite it as a classic case of fashion licensing gone awry. There is perhaps nothing here of value other than that the removal of Balenciaga from the fashion landscape as a major player enabled other talents to rise and fill the void. But then it would be a shame to overlook the curious anomaly that it presents. Balenciaga was a master tailor. His clothes were meticulous constructions built with the precision and consideration of a Corbusier. It was perhaps even his experimentation with structure and volume that launched the Space Age designers into their cosmic fantasies of form. But during the 1970s everything went soft, the line grew long and lean and here we see the codes of Balenciaga reinterpreted for a new time but, possibly because they had no such grand ambitions, without any overt affectation of its fashions. Balenciaga’s wide-cut a-line coats, an essential in his repertoire, is leaned out with long wide-leg pants. Present is his purist precision punctuated by a tasteful printed blouse and a conical Asian style bamboo hat — a nod to ’50s couture glamour. The modernist suggestion of a Balenciaga signature is given a truly modern ease revealing just how eternal his initial propositions could be provided they were adjusted appropriately. At the time such an update probably felt rehashed and probably like a chore, in hindsight it offers a rare and compelling interpretation of Balenciaga’s codes showing just how eternal they could be.
This 1978 update of course comes at the insistence of a new minimalist mood in the ’70s that was largely defined by Halston. That the Spanish legend and a good boy from the Midwest could at some point overlap is as much a fluke as it fate. Halston was a great admirer of Balenciaga and sought to instill the master’s purity and minimalist splendor into his own softer and more sensual designs sometimes seeing himself as Balenciaga’s spiritual heir. One could say that many of Halston’s innovations are indebted to Balenciaga, as much as Courreges’s or Ungaro’s in the ’60s. The implication here is powerful not because of what it meant for Halston but what it could mean for defining what a “modern” Balenciaga could be today, particularly now as designers like Pierpaolo Piccioli, Mara Grazia Chiuri, Christophe Lemaire, Veronique Branquinho and Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski set a new tone for fashionable luxury classics.