As much as the French love fashion, soccer took precedence last week in Paris. Even at the fall 2006 haute couture fashion shows, talk inevitably turned to Zinédine Zidane, or "Zizou," France's World Cup star. Some editors went so far as to sport les bleus--the team's cobalt blue jerseys--in his honor.
If there were a fashion equivalent to the handsome player, it would be Cristobal Balenciaga, above, the great Spanish couturier who shaped fashion from 1937, when he opened his Paris atelier, until 1968, when he abruptly closed it. The designer's rigorous spirit has always hovered over runways, but thanks to "Balenciaga Paris," a sweeping retrospective of his work that just opened at Paris' Musée de la Mode et du Textile, his influence is once again in midfield.
The couture runways were littered with hints of Balenciaga's innovative cuts and use of volume. At Dior, the exaggerated shape of a horsehair skirt echoed his penchant for stiff fabrics. At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld kicked in a fuchsia cocoon coat--an iconic Balenciaga look. Even couture newcomer Giorgio Armani, who began showing in Paris only three seasons ago, referenced the designer with a stunningly simple A-line evening dress.
"He was the couturier who influenced me the most," says Christian Lacroix, who this season showed somber, voluminous coats that hark back to Balenciaga's work in the 1950s. "His use of materials, the graphic silhouette, the use of black and the influence of the Spanish Renaissance, lace, the pure opulence."
While the relevance of haute couture, fashion's pricey spectacle whose handmade dresses can cost as much as a car, is an open question, nobody seems to doubt the pertinence of Balenciaga--even three decades after his death.
"Many of the visitors say, 'Oh, I would like to wear that now,'" says Pamela Golbin, curator of the exhibition along with Nicolas Ghesquière, the current designer for the reinvigorated label Balenciaga. The 170 dresses and suits, including Balenciaga's sack dress, his semifitted suit and that cocoon coat, were culled from private collections and museums as far away as Kyoto, Japan.
In Balenciaga's heyday, the stylish women he dressed--from Doris Duke to Mona von Bismarck--often said he gave them noble posture. Most women today don't want to look quite so regal and stiff, but they do want to feel au courant, and that modern poise is perhaps Balenciaga's most enduring legacy.
Balenciaga closed down his ateliers just as the student riots revved up in Paris. His reason was simple: he couldn't keep up with the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. Like great athletes, the great designers know when they have played their best.