The Master of Us All - Mary Blume

When Cristóbal Balenciaga died in 1972, the news hit the front page of The New York Times. One of the most innovative and admired figures in the history of haute couture, Balenciaga was, said Schiaparelli, "the only designer who dares do what he likes." He was, said Christian Dior,"the master of us all." But despite his extraordinary impact, Balenciaga was a man hidden from view. Unlike today's celebrity designers, he saw to it that little was known about him, to the point that some French journalists wondered if he existed at all. Even his most notable and devoted clients―Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Hutton, a clutch of Rothschilds―never met him. But one woman knew Balenciaga very well indeed. The first person he hired when he opened his Paris house (then furnished with only a table and a stool) was Florette Chelot, who became his top vendeuse―as much an adviser as a saleswoman. She witnessed the spectacular success of his first collection, and they worked closely for more than thirty years, until 1968, when Balenciaga abruptly closed his house without telling any of his staff. Youth-oriented fashion was taking over, Paris was in upheaval, and the elder statesman wanted no part of it. In The Master of Us All , Mary Blume tells the remarkable story of the man and his house through the eyes of the woman who knew him best. Intimate and revealing, this is an unprecedented portrait of a designer whose vision transformed an industry but whose story has never been told until now.




"The Master Of Us All" was a title given to the Spanish clothing designer, Cristobal Balenciaga, by fellow clothing designer Christian Dior. Balenciaga came from humble roots -- his father a fisherman, his mother a seamstress / dressmaker -- but his curiosity and love of detail would prove to serve him well in his rise to fame years later. As a child, Balenciaga would tag along on his mother's trips to clients' homes for fittings appointments. He would pay close attention to his mother's techniques, particularly how to drape a fabric in the way most flattering to the client's body type. As he grew up, he found his own employment in the fashion industry, starting as a clothing buyer. His success as a designer was not immediate -- after his first major show, the general consensus was that his designs were "pretty, but boring". He stuck with it though, always eager to learn and improve...even when he finally had reached insane success. As this bio shows, "making it" doesn't mean you have guaranteed fans everywhere -- look at Dior. By 1949, the house of Dior -- JUST Dior -- made up 5% of France's entire export revenue. Yet fellow French designer Coco Chanel was quoted as saying that Dior's clothes made women look like stuffed armchairs! Balenciaga took note, always honing his signature style. 


Much of what made this book fascinating for me was Blume's research into Balenciaga's relationships with other designers. He was notoriously reclusive. What the media sometimes labeled "secretive" was maybe just discretion -- during his entire career, he never gave interviews, never bowed after runway shows, and many of his most famous clients never actually met him (largely because he insisted on the focus being on the clothes, not the man) -- so it makes for captivating reading to get a BTS look at this guy. It was said that with Spanish aristocracy, he was warm and open, behaving as if he was around friends and neighbors. When it came to French aristocracy though, he was quiet, polite, much more reserved. He developed friendships with French designers such as Chanel & Dior but not without some hang-ups.


With Dior, they weren't maybe what you'd call besties, but they definitely had a friendly work rivalry going. Dior often spoke glowingly of Balenciaga's work. He didn't see competition between them necessarily, because their styles and approach to design in general were so different. Dior was known to lend some of his pieces out to celebrity clients as free publicity. Balenciaga did this on occassion as well, but in general he wasn't a fan of the practice. Balenciaga seemed to have a laser focus on work & technique -- the book points out that when a design didn't come out to his liking, he was apt to say it was "cursi", roughly translating to "piss-elegant" or tacky. Dior more often indulged in theatrics to get his name out there. As Blume further explains:


He {Dior} set the best table in Paris, dying, aged fifty-two, at a slimming spa in Italy from a lifetime's surfeit of dishes like baked oysters in bechamel sauce and beef filet layered in slices of melting foie gras. He had led a happy sunlit childhood in a much-loved and ugly mansion in Granville in Normandy, the son of a fertilizer tycoon, one of France's richest men... and a very loving mother. He was incurably nostalgic all his life. 


Balenciaga's nostalgia, if indeed he had any, could not be based on dappled trees and starched housemaids and soft settees. Growing up in a humble village where fishermen faced the threat of sullen seas, where women wore black and the local church, oversized and dark, spoke of duty and sorrow, he may have had that one enlightening encounter with the marquesa...but his was a harsh and rigorous childhood that left no room for misty memories. 


Balenciaga also had a friendship with designer Givenchy (perhaps most famous for his working partnership with Audrey Hepburn). According to Givenchy, Balenciaga and Coco Chanel were good friends until word got out that she gave an interview to fashion magazine Women's Wear Daily criticizing Balenciaga's homosexuality as well as saying that he dressed women the way he did because he knew nothing about a woman's body. Daaaang, girl! You didn't think that'd get back to him?! There was also something about Chanel promising to provide editor John Fairchild with a picture of Balenciaga and then not following through with one (remember back to B's tendency to keep private). Friendship fallout ensued and Balenciaga, completely crushed & brokenhearted at the betrayal, returned to Spain for a time to lick his wounds. The friendship was never 100% repaired after that but Givenchy later said he was surprised to hear Balenciaga did attend Chanel's funeral. 


One of Balenciaga's designs -- this photo ended up being the inspiration

behind the early designs of Karl Lagerfeld,

who saw this image as a teenager.

Lagerfeld took over Coco Chanel's company after her death.



When Blume looked into this particular story, she says that Fairchild was quoted as saying this incident never happened, recent editors of the magazine concur there's no truth to it and there doesn't seem to be any record of this Chanel interview in the magazine's archives, though Givenchy swore he saw it with his own eyes ... begs the question why one would make up such a story?! Not to mention that in a final interview before his death, he spoke rather glowingly of this woman whose behavior he earlier claimed was so catty. So maybe Balenciaga just went back to Spain for that time because he needed some time to reconnect with his roots? 


Balenciaga's professional advice to Givenchy

(but also just great life advice in general):

"You have an upbringing that says you must be this, you must do that.

No, be natural. Be simple, be honest. Don't make complications."



I don't know. I'm honestly not sure what to believe. But Blume seems to hint that Givenchy was possibly an unreliable source for information, as some of Balenciaga's friends seemed to have the feeling that Givenchy, who was an up and coming designer when Balenciaga was already solidly established, was manipulating the friendship / mentorship to more quickly gain fame and clients. Balenciaga's longtime business partners, the Bizcarrondos, believed Givenchy was toying with B to get him to financially back Givenchy as he built up his own design house. When asked about this years later, Givenchy swore up and down that he knew nothing about this accusation, that the Bizcarrondos had already broken their partnership with B by 1953 when he came in.... but Blume states that records show they were still there in 1955, soo... hmm... 


I think this book nicely illustrates what a complex personality Balenciaga had. He was known to be very paternal and protective with his models. When not wearing his designs, he had them in simple black dresses, wanting to honor modesty. He made clothes for the aristocracy(designing the wedding dress of Queen Fabiola of Belgium) and priest's cassocks for churches in both France & Spain (some of which were even used at Balenciaga's own funeral), but also loved designing a great party dress for the every woman.


Balenciaga also designed flight attendant uniforms for Air France,

a job which flamed his obsession and struggle with sleeves --

his usual way of crafting armholes proved too narrow to allow for 

easily reaching into overhead compartments. 


He could be a jokester some days -- throwing out a "we make sales here?!" in feigned shock when his assistant mentions being overwhelmed with orders. He preferred dressing what we might today call "the average woman", the clients on the slightly more "plump" side, as Blume calls it here,  -- his employees were known to say "Monsieur likes a bit of belly" -- in one instance calling out one of his models who had been secretly dieting when she became self-conscious about the thickness of her thighs, but fell into a dizzy spell in front of him. When she confessed what the trouble was, he answered back, "It's not your job to be slim, it's my job to dress you so it can't be seen." The model said he then ordered her a steak and fries from a nearby restaurant and sat until she ate everything, before he would continue. He was so adamant about using models with curve that in one instance he actually threw the famously rail-thin model Twiggy out of a photo shoot of his clothing, insisting one of his shop models be brought in instead!


As cool as that is, there are also many stories of him infuriating clients and employees with his stubbornness and periodic rages. He knew what he liked and what he wanted and wasn't afraid to refuse to compromise. Typical of an icon, while he might not always have been liked, it appears he was definitely respected and deeply missed after his passing. 


For someone that admittedly knows next to nothing about modern day fashion houses, yet loves fashion history, I found this biography fascinating. It's also written in a super easy to read style, btw. The reader also gets a bonus of a ton of historic photographs scattered throughout. Though I gotta say.... some of those designs... if I saw one of my female friends wearing a few of those dresses today, I'd definitely be like, "Girl, I know it's Balenciaga, but wtf are you wearing?!" But I guess that's how fashion goes, eh? :-)