"Arbiters of fashion generally agree that Balenciaga, the son of a Basque fisherman and a seamstress, was the greatest couturier of the last century. Dior considered him the primus inter pares, and Chanel conceded that Balenciaga alone could construct a perfect garment from start to finish with his own hands, whereas everyone else was merely 'a designer.'"
To comprehend his genius you could inspect the three hundred original designs he created each year from 1937 to 1968, but you'd still be lost about his legacy; or you could simply read Judith Thurman's New Yorker essay "The Absolutist," which includes the quote above and is a highlight of her brilliant Cleopatra's Nose [Kindle]. She discusses Balenciaga's business partner and greatest love, Vladzio Zawrorowski d'Attainville, as well as the benefits of being gay to Yves Saint Laurent and the recent Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière: "A sense of dislocation often hones the instincts of a gifted gay youth from the provinces... They are able to recognize a closeted seductress -- a Buñuel heroine, like Belle du Jour -- and help to realize her potential for transgression." Last year Alexander Wang, 29, replaced Ghesquière as creative director.
Despite his success and his peerless status as The Master, Balenciaga suffered a series of devastations: In 1947 Dior got credit for the New Look, when Balenciaga had been showing mid-calf skirts, full bust jackets, and small waists for years; in 1948 his partner died; and over the next two decades the world edged away from couture to ready to wear. Although he triumphed time and again with his tunic dresses in 1955, his sack dresses in 1956, his pairing of tall boots with harlequin tights and shorter hemlines, and his maverick use of special fabrics like plastics for rainwear, he decided to close his business in 1968 rather than lower himself to the faster, cheaper standards mandated by ready-to-wear. Four years later he died in Spain.