Let's Play Master and Servant
Text: Elias Tezapsids
The continuously dynamic status quo of modern fashion gives the industry a static character: its unpredictability becomes predictable. Few surprises taut the fashion community to its core. Alexander Wang’s recent appointment as the designer to succeed Nicolas Ghesquière’s 15-year reign of the house of Balenciaga is the most recent event of such grand magnitude.
Wang is expected to demonstrate his informed understanding of the lineage of the brand he inherits. The primary contrast between Wang's designer prowess--his prêt-à-porter downtown insightfulness--and Balenciaga’s legacy highlights a change Mary Blume chronicles in The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World: the obsolescence of haute couture.
Through a meticulous juxtaposition of the views of individuals close to Cristóbal Balenciaga, carefully selected segments of international press and her own personal opinions, Blume lends validity to an otherwise elusive history. The structure of the book is remarkable; the author becomes a bricoler of a saga that transcends trend. Specifically, she touches on the sociocultural and historical phenomena--such as the Spanish Civil War and WWII--that surrounded Balenciaga ranging from his humble Basque beginnings to his triumphant entry to the fashion pantheon of couturiers, as well as his eventual descent and much mourned self-imposed departure from fashion in 1968. Without losing her focus on descriptions of ephemera, the author successfully identifies some of Balenciaga’s key traits: simplicity, laconicness, perseverance, loyalty, elegance, insecurity and, above all, seriousness.
Florette, an endearing vendeuse who was Balenciaga’s first and most devoted Parisian employee, serves as the primary source of information to the author, and ultimately, Florette’s story is elevated to a separate narrative. Regardless of Florette’s candidness and personal charisma, the extent to which she defines her life by how it was intertwined to Balenciaga’s reminds the reader that the silent protagonist is the one Blume wants to demystify. Florette is too much of an open book: her ubiquitous smile contradicts the austerity that defined the house of Balenciaga, and the somber aura the designer himself exuded to the public.
Being tremendously fragile once he enabled a rapport of meaningful connection, Balenciaga preferred to protect himself by being one of the least ‘explained’ figures of his era. He was his own harshest critic, and his ceaseless perfectionism sufficed to motivate him in creating clothes that changed the lives of their wearers. For Balenciaga’s clothes to have that effect, his clients needed to rise to the challenge of filling them adequately with the ample confidence his garments required.
In the book’s introduction, Blume jokes with Florette about a picture in which she wore a Balenciaga coat wrong, destroying the intended clean neckline. Florette momentarily loses her smile and states: “Monsieur Balenciaga would have torn that coat off your back.” The seriousness that set Cristóbal Balenciaga apart seems anachronistic today. His manic obsession to perfect sleeves would seem comical in our universe of ready-to-wear uniformity where ‘good enough’ is truly enough and sartorial flaws are not that serious.
Wang’s harshest critics perceive his appointment as a disservice to both the Balenciaga name and the artistic and technical talent of his predecessor. Wang’s market prowess--especially in Asia--lead one to assume PPR is at least looking at the numbers. “Balenciaga made the impossible possible, if for what could only be a brief time,” writes Blume in the final paragraph of The Master of Us All. One can only imagine Wang will strive to do the same.