Cristóbal Balenciaga: a beautiful name. Elle magazine rhapsodized in 1950 that the four syllables of "Balenciaga" simply burst forth upon the page (actually, there are five), while a contemporary poet sees in the name's "swaying melody the flowing quality of Balenciaga's clothes and exquisite justesse of their proportions." It is a once-upon-a-time sort of name that should be part of a fable, and it is.
The setting is the humble fishing village of Getaria on Spain's Basque coast, between San Sebastián and Bilbao, the date early in the last century. The fairy tale has many versions, but let Pauline de Rothschild, the former Pauline Potter, begin:
In the center of a street made dark by the shadows of its thick stone houses, a woman was walking, her back turned to the light from the sea. She wore a pale, ankle length, silk shantung suit. The severe houses enclosed her, shuttered.
A boy was watching her.
She would come almost abreast of him, and he would run up a side-street of the fishing village, so closely carved into the mountain that its streets are as steep and narrow as Genoa's, some entirely made of steps. Down another he would run and be ahead of her again.
Then he would stare.
One day he stopped her, and asked if he could make a suit for her. The boy was about thirteen, with dark hair and darker eyes and the smile he would keep all his life.
"Why do you want to do this?" she asked.
"Because I think I can," he answered.
The boy was Cristóbal Balenciaga ...
The woman was the old Marquesa de Casa Torres (or her daughter-in-law) and she was wearing a white (or beige) Worth, Drecoll, Ceruit, or Redfern dress or suit, according to who is telling the tale. She was possibly on her way to (or from) Mass. The boy may have been as young as six (or as old as nineteen), and his father — who had died of a heart attack or was drowned at sea — was either a fisherman or the captain of the royal yacht. Cheeky young Cristóbal, the legend continues, copied her outfit so perfectly that the marquesa became his patron and took him while he was still in his teens to meet the great couturier Jacques Doucet in Paris.
Some of this is true.
But much of it isn't. The very plainness of plain fact has never seemed to fit someone so exotic as Balenciaga (as if the amazing could not spring from the quotidian), and so for decades the legends were embellished rather than investigated. Then a young Basque curator named Miren Arzalluz took the trouble to dig into official records and in 2010 published her findings about Balenciaga's family and early years. Myths, uncovered facts, and one's own instinct about the mix can finally make a coherent, if spare, whole.
Getaria, Balenciaga's birthplace, is a modest and handsome fishing village whose past as a whaling port brought it sufficient wealth to have as its center an oversize Gothic church, San Salvador, of surpassing gloom and considerable weirdness because its near-trapezoidal floor tilts noticeably up toward the altar. A statue near the city hall honors the local hero, Sebastián de Elcano, the first captain to circumnavigate the globe (as Magellan's second in command he took over when Magellan was killed in the Philippines), and new plaques mark the birthplaces of Balenciaga, in a tidy small house near the church, and the mother of Plácido Domingo, over an anchovy cannery. Getaria has excellent fish that restaurateurs grill in the street, and gray buildings whose sound proportions and straightness of line are bolder than the often-quaint Basque architecture of France. Even now Getaria has an air of provincial rectitude; its inhabitants provided San Sebastián, thirty kilometers along the coast, with fish and services when the Spanish king and his court went there each summer.
In about 1853, France's Empress Eugénie, who was born in Spain, invented Biarritz as a fashionable resort. Following her example, in 1887, Queen María Cristina of Spain decided to make San Sebastián, across the border, the official summer home of the Spanish court. While Biarritz is dramatic and citified, San Sebastián is calmer and more elegant, with a wide seafront and restaurants that have made it a foodie mecca today. Friends in Paris were often surprised by the supposedly austere Balenciaga's pleasure in good eating, but he was Basque, and three existential questions, it is said, trouble the Basques each day: Where do we come from? Who are we? What are we going to have for dinner?
The last question results in excellent local cooking; the first two are harder. No one knows where the Basques come from — even the prevalent blood type differs from that of other Europeans — and they like to think of themselves as Europe's aborigines, their spiritual locus being an ancient oak tree in Guernica. The Basques' language, Euskera, once believed to be the tongue spoken in the Garden of Eden, bears no relation to any other, and they group all the other languages in the world in one single dismissive word, Erdera. They are proud (by an ancient royal Spanish edict they are all aristocrats), deeply Catholic, and intractable. Cristóbal Balenciaga was definitely Basque. The family was modest but respected: his father, a fisherman, served briefly as mayor of Getaria and rose to skipper the launch that was often used by the Spanish court, including the queen, in the summer season. His mother bore five children, two of whom died in infancy. Cristóbal, born in 1895, was the youngest; his sister, Agustina, and his brother, Juan Martín, remained his business associates in Spain throughout their lives. The older children were already at work when their father died after a stroke, leaving eleven-year-old Cristóbal alone to help out his mother, Martina Eizaguirre.
Well before her husband's death Martina was already giving sewing lessons to local girls and making dresses for private clients such as the Marquesa de Casa Torres, whose dressmaker she became a year before before Cristóbal was born. Hubert de Givenchy says that Balenciaga told him that his first attempt at design was to make a necklace for his cat ("but since you can't make a cat lie on its back all the beads scattered"), while a French magazine claims that he began by making a coat, including the legs, for his dog (presumably an early manifestation of his passion for sleeves). In any event the boy was at home with his mother, helping out, playing with scraps of fabric, and often going with her for fittings in the homes of summering aristocrats.
Excerpted from The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World by Mary Blume, to be published in February 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2013 by Mary Blume. All rights reserved.