The king is dead,” proclaimed Women’s Wear Daily in March 1972 of designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, whose death came four years after he abruptly closed the doors of his couture salon. Described as “the master of us all” by Christian Dior and “a couturier in the truest sense of the word” by Coco Chanel, five decades later Balenciaga’s legendary cut still evokes the same fervour. The 2016 revival of the house under Demna Gvasalia and a solo retrospective at the V&A last year have only compounded the interest in vintage pieces.
“There was such practicality to his tailoring,” says vintage dealer William Banks-Blaney. “Whenever we get a great suit or coat, the construction is mind-blowing: the couture weighting, the gusseting, the seaming, the stitching – there was nobody like him.” Banks-Blaney’s current stock includes a beautiful red houndstooth wrap skirt suit (£1,675) from around 1960, while Circa Vintage has a brown houndstooth suit (£1,475) from the Paris atelier.
Balenciaga’s clothes were produced both in his Spanish homeland, under his Eisa label, and in his Paris atelier, which opened in 1937 on Avenue George V – pieces from the latter usually carry a higher price tag, according to Banks-Blaney. But while the hand-finishing in Paris was supreme, auctioneer Kerry Taylor believes the Eisa label can be just as collectable. A case in point is a 1968 wedding dress that she sold, in heavy white slub silk with a gazar veil. “It was almost nun-like,” says Taylor. Ahead of the sale, fashion insiders advised that her £20,000-£30,000 estimate was too high for a dress with an Eisa label. The ensemble sold for a record-breaking £60,000.
To new collectors Taylor suggests haute couture day suits as the best entry pieces and she routinely sells these for between £400 and £600; they are also easy to find thanks to the more resilient wools or cotton twills that they were cut from.
For those who buy to wear, Balenciaga combines meticulous structure and couture craft with a startling modernity. Among luxury brand consultant Carmen Haid’s collection is a striking black velvet evening coat and a turquoise brocade dress with bell sleeves and practical pockets (the latter a Balenciaga signature) that she bought privately. “These pieces still feel surprisingly contemporary,” says Haid, who has worn her turquoise dress to London cocktail parties where guests had no idea it was vintage. The trick, she says, is to wear one piece at a time with modern accessories. “The cut and the draping mean it hangs perfectly, but it is also easy to wear,” she says of the dress, which is simply pulled on over the head.
One of the first Balenciaga pieces Audrey Seo, a historian of Japanese art, bought was a fuchsia velvet opera coat, almost 20 years ago. Since then she has added many more to her collection – a favourite is a dramatic black silk-cloqué dress that she says is very proper and subdued from the front, but has a deep V in the back with ties that fall to the hem. “The designs are clean and fresh and the construction is deceptively simple. I always tell people that there is nothing like wearing a Balenciaga coat; it just feels and moves differently.”
Seo also has a burgundy velvet matador-style bolero jacket from the mid-1940s, embellished with jet beads. Such Spanish-influenced pieces from the 1940s and 1950s are also highly sought-after, says Taylor. They represent a strong theme of Balenciaga’s earlier work, when he referenced the rich embroideries of Spanish shawls and clothes evocative of his native culture, such as flamenco or bullfighting. 1stdibs currently has in stock a beautiful gold and black gown (£32,898) from 1953, embellished by Parisian embroiderer Rébé.
But the most desirable looks are arguably those created in the 1960s, when the designer’s lines became increasingly pure and dramatic and often featured lavish fabrics such as Ottoman silks, satins and velvets. “There was an extraordinary purity, an almost ascetic quality to his designs from 1963 to 1968. They had brevity and became so assured,” says Banks-Blaney, who sold a 1965 raspberry silk sliced-back dinner dress to one client who needed “something insanely chic but incredibly hot” for an event. “From the front it looked like a sheath, but at the back it was cut so low – it was modern and spectacular.” And at Didier Ludot’s Les Petites Robes Noires sale at Sotheby’s Paris last autumn, a monastic 1968 ivory gazar wedding dress sold for £31,000, while a sleeveless gown in bright yellow silk zibeline with black organza petals at the hem, from the same collection, sold for £2,442. Currently, at Cherie Balch’s online store Shrimpton Couture, there’s a vivid-yellow silk off-the-shoulder haute couture gown ($6,800) from 1962 with a draped tie-back that’s typical of Balenciaga’s brilliance in this era.
Such museum-quality pieces tend to carry the highest prices, but those buying to wear can still pick up a bargain, especially for altered garments. Taylor cites a stunning 1960s “cloth of gold” cocktail dress slightly adjusted to fit. It sold for just £1,600.