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Balenciaga’s Legacy

Spanish-Inspired Designs

Cristobal Balenciaga, a fashion designer who created iconic haute couture looks from 1937 to 1968, continues to inspire designers today.

A collection of his artistic creations from various museums and private collections are currently on showcase at San Francisco’s de Young Museum through July 4. The exhibit captures a great many themes that Balenciaga drew for his inspiration. Although these designs are memorialized at the retrospective, his style still inspires and influences today.

Not everyone can afford the designs from the Balenciaga fashion house, currently under the direction of Nicolas Ghesquière. Balenciaga turned to the traditional flamenco dancer’s skirt and its long silhouette to create many dresses throughout his career. If that’s the look you’re after, consider the line of Dalia MacPhee.

Her strapless taffeta gowns take inspiration from Balenciaga’s iconic shape and can be found at Nordstrom ($298-$328). There are a number of style variations, which include tiers of pleated ruffles that begin at the waistline or billow at the bottom like a mermaid’s tail.

Flamenco dancer accessories also provided much seed for Balenciaga’s designs. For instance, a dancer’s embroidered silk shawl would serve as a starting point to a bolt of fabric to use for a long evening dress. In this vein, the de Young Museum offers several silk shawls ($125) in bright on-trend colors including turquoise and fuchsia. They are all made in Spain and hand-embroidered.

The ruffles of a flamenco dancer’s dress, the bolero worn by a matador at a bullfight, the lacy mantilla that draws over a woman’s head, and voluminous skirts worn by women in regional areas of Spain all illustrate Balenciaga’s ties to Spain in this exhibit. Such references reverberate today, not only in Balenciaga’s fashion house, but also among other designers and fashionistas who decide how to craft the look.

Coiffures and headpieces worn by the Spanish royal court from the 16th and 17th centuries informed Balenciaga’s designs as well. Headpieces with ostrich plumes made appearances in various collections throughout his career. Not to be outdone is Miss G Designs, a headpiece design company based in San Francisco. The pieces are striking and unique. Creations start at $95 for small adornments and literally spread their wings to $150 for large feathery pieces.

Religious life also weighed into many of Balenciaga’s works. The brown hooded robes worn by Franciscan monks were reborn as stylish hooded raincoats. A Catholic priest’s cassock translated to a black silk evening coat. A devout Catholic, Balenciaga would at times rub a scrap of fabric between his fingers as if they were rosary beads.

Inspired by how Balenciaga’s religious life played into his works and his friendship with Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, one should consider the skin art tattoos ($75) by Chanel. Fifty-five designs of chains, pearls, and other images come in ready-to-apply sheets. In homage to Balenciaga, one can create a rosary bead necklace using strands of pearls and a cross.

It should be noted that Balenciaga guarded his patterns and designs fiercely. He copyrighted all his designs to prevent counterfeits. Whatever the inspiration, he did not copy looks. He built his own. Balenciaga’s works provide magnificent blueprints to plan one’s own look and his body of work continues to influence designers today. It is his legacy. The king of couturier lives on.