ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Winter storm Nemo is wreaking havoc this weekend for some tall, skinny women in very fashionable stilettos and a long list of the most famous American designers. New York's fashion week kicked off yesterday. That means dozens of models parading down runway after runway to show off designers' latest concoctions to the beat of the hippest music.
Well, we're going to take this opportunity to explore the life of one of the most famous 20th century designers and how much life as a designer has changed since then. In the 1940s and '50s, Cristobal Balenciaga, the son of a poor Spanish seamstress, crafted the most sought-after bell-shaped coats, feathered pencil skirts and tunic dresses.
Christian Dior called him the master of us all. Balenciaga became an international fashion star, although according to a new book by journalist Mary Blume, he had no interest in being one.
MARY BLUME: Nobody knew how tall he was, if he was slim or fat or - several French journalists thought that he wasn't one person, but that he was a team of designers. This is simply because he did not appear.
CORNISH: And you wrote also that journalists said that he would duck the photographers, that he didn't take a bow at the end of runway shows.
BLUME: No, no. What he really wanted to do was work. And for a man who did maybe 150 fittings a day, there wasn't much time or energy for what he regarded as nonsense. He was not part of the social world; he was not, incredible as it may seem now, a celebrity designer.
CORNISH: Now, when you look at other designers from that period, maybe a Coco Chanel who came to be synonymous with a certain kind of jacket or a certain kind of women, when it came to Balenciaga, who was the kind of woman that you associated with that kind of design at that time?
BLUME: Well, I think one tends to associate really the grandest, the richest, what Truman Capote called the swans. And in addition to the glamorous clients, the people he really liked to dress - very, very odd - was short, fat, middle-aged women. He enjoyed working on the body and didn't like any kind of constriction. His suits never clung to the body. They sort of shadowed it, if one can say that.
And Balenciaga's look, if you can limit it to anything, is a grand look. His perfectionism was an inspiration.
CORNISH: When you talk about perfection, you write that he had an obsession with sleeves.
BLUME: He did. He drove everyone mad. He drove his fitters mad. He drove his models mad. It was perhaps a sign of real personal attention if you were one of the rare clients that he had lunch with and you showed up in your Balenciaga suit and at the end of the lunch he ripped out the sleeve and reset it.
CORNISH: So over time, Balenciaga and the Balenciaga house comes to be seen as a kind of older and stern-looking fashion, coming into the '60s. It's not as fun.
BLUME: Yeah. It's rigorous and it's grand and the times, of course, were not. The youthquake happened and Balenciaga could not and didn't want to be part of that. You know, he was in his 60s. After Balenciaga's death, Yves Saint Laurent said to Womens' Wear that he thought that Balenciaga had been insufficiently influenced by life, which is kind of an interesting statement and I guess one could argue that it was true in a way. And Saint Laurent was interested in what was going on in the street. Balenciaga, I don't think, ever looked in the street.
CORNISH: Well, Mary Blume, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BLUME: Thank you. It was a great pleasure. And thank you for your interest.
CORNISH: Author Mary Blume, here book is called "The Master Of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World." Cristobal Balenciaga closed up shop in 1968 and died just a few years later. The Balenciaga label was revived in the 1980s and today, it's part of a billion-dollar fashion conglomerate. These days, a designer is far more likely to be called a creative director. And as we hear from Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer Robin Givhan, that comes with a whole other set of expectations.
ROBIN GIVHAN: The creative director is not just someone who's creating the clothes, but it's someone who's thinking about marketing and advertising and stores. No longer can they sort of sequester themselves in the salon and sit in front of a sketchpad or in front of a mannequin and drape fabric, but they really have to be out there.
And I think that's an enormous burden on a designer because it requires that not only are you this creative person, but you also have to have the personality of a celebrity. I mean, you have to be someone who wants to do the interviews, who wants to walk the red carpet, who wants to make the witty repartee at a cocktail party, who wants to, in some ways, reveal a lot about their personal selves.
CORNISH: Now, the new creative director of Balenciaga would be a good example, right? It's a young man named Alexander Wang. Tell us a little bit about him. What's his fashion like and what's his kind of persona?
GIVHAN: Yeah. You know, I don't think you can separate his persona from his fashion because they are intimately connected. I mean, Alexander Wang is someone who is - one of the first shows I remember seeing of his, all I kept thinking was his models look like they were doing the walk of shame after a night of partying. I mean, these clothes were meant to look like these disheveled garments worn by young women who had spent the night at a club.
And you could almost smell the stale cigarette smoke wafting off of them as they came down the runway.
CORNISH: Totally different from Balenciaga tearing sleeves off of people that he found unsatisfactory.
GIVHAN: And, you know, the other thing about Alexander Wang is that people very quickly got a sense of his personality. I mean, he was known for bounding down the runway after a show and in some instances, you almost felt like the post-show celebratory party was as important as the show itself.
CORNISH: Now, could a Cristobal Balenciaga survive in the fashion business today?
GIVHAN: I think he could, but I think that he might be a frustrated designer in the sense that it is frustrating to know that you're putting out your best work and to know that you are incredibly appreciated by your colleagues, but that the public doesn't seem to get it because it's not filled with bells and whistles and glitter and smoke and mirrors and all the things that make fashion fashion today.
CORNISH: Well, Robin, thank you so much for speaking with me.
GIVHAN: My pleasure.
CORNISH: Fashion writer Robin Givhan is a contributor to The Washington Post.