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How does one write a biography about someone who has been dead for 40 years, was a bit of a recluse his whole life, and whom few people really knew? If you are Mary Blume, and the subject is Cristobal Balenciaga—one of fashion’s most unique and forward-thinking designers in his day—you focus on the fashion itself, the time when the subject was most creative, and on the impact he had on fashion.
The Master of Us All (FSG) tells the story of Balenciaga through the memory of Florette Chelot, the first woman he hired at his salon in 1936, and who stayed with him as a vendeuse until he closed in 1968. He was one of the few Spanish designers in the fashion-world, dominated primarily by the French and the Italians. Being based in Paris may have contributed to his shyness; he was apparently self-conscious that he spoke French with a Spanish accent. Here was a man who never took a bow after his shows and preferred to keep his distance by watching the models and the audience though a peephole in the curtains. So removed was he from his clientele, he hardly ever met them when they came to his salon on Avenue George V. He was not part of Paris’ social scene.
Blume does a commendable job in giving us a taste for how the fashion world operated in pre- and post-WWII Paris. Balenciaga’s friendship with the other top haute-couturiers, Hubert de Givenchy and Christian Dior, are mentioned, as well as his connection with Coco Chanel—whom he fell out with over a disparaging interview she gave to Women’s Wear Daily. Because most of the book is from Florette’s perspective, we learn much about the workings of his salon, how the customers were treated, his use of unconventional-looking models, his quarrelling with the ateliers, how strict and often lonely the work atmosphere was, and of his acute sense to forgo the traditional display of his merchandise in his windows. He preferred more abstract creations.
Through Florette we learn of how obsessive Balenciaga was about his craft, particularly in his construction of the sleeve, which he constantly changed. The baby-doll dress, pill-box hats, the bracelet-sleeve and silhouettes that were made to flatter not just size zeros are part of Balenciaga’s legacy. He emphasised the waistline less and less, earning him the reputation of liking to dress a woman with a belly. “Give me an imperfect body and I will make it perfect,” he stated. Blume, a former writer for the International Herald Tribune, aptly shows the reader the impeccable influence this man had on fashion and highlights the talent and craft he possessed as a designer who refined his look, collection after collection, by dabbling with color, changing the sleeve’s length and shape, the hemlines and the silhouette. He mastered his singular vision—a far cry from many other designers whose aesthetic changed drastically from collection to collection. Where Blume fails though, is in her ability to form a view of his personal life. His partner of twenty years, whom he loved dearly and shared his home with for many years, gets very little coverage. Blume leaves too many stones unturned; her brief mentions of Balenciaga’s lover simply lead to more unanswered questions. Apparently, the impact of his partner’s death was so strong that it nearly sent Balenciaga into seclusion, contemplating the closure of his house. The impact resulted in Balenciaga’s famed, but sad and mournful, all-black collection. It is the seldom dropped anecdotes like these that add a humane spark to Blume’s book. While this book is definitely a must read for knowledge hungry fashion fanatics, the biography details the life around Balenciaga, more than providing an in depth study of the man himself.
The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World
By Mary Blume
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374298739, 240 pp.