Conversations – Balenciaga and Vionnet

Mary Blume, 'The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, his workrooms, his world,' New York, 2013.
Mary Blume, ‘The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, his workrooms, his world,’ New York, 2013.

While the pattern cutters, Esme and Patrick, are busy in the studio working on the reproductions, and our documenter Liam is editing his brilliant short films, here in the office I’m diving deeper in the wild world of contextual research. It is becoming ever more apparent that our five designers are connect in more ways than we previously expected, and the further we investigate, the more connections we unravel. Here is one of the many conversations we are ‘eavesdropping’ between our designers, this one showing the close friendship between Vionnet and Balenciaga, as presented by Mary Blume in The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, his workrooms, his world (2013):

Balenciaga probably met Vionnet when she showed her collection to the Spanish court at San Sebastián in 1920. He was already buying her clothes for his shop on his Paris trips (a hasty working sketch on a piece of hotel stationary in the Arts Décoratifs archive in Paris also suggests that he was not above pinching her ideas), but when they met and she saw his work she encouraged him to create rather than adapt other people’s designs. They shared a stubborn and exalted view of clothes as a sort of second skin that sculpts, rather than encases, the body: the couturier as a builder, not a decorator. They were both brilliant technicians, Balenciaga the more versatile in that he was as expert at tailoring coats and suits as at cutting soft fabrics, and both saw the designer as a craftsman dealing with clients and not as remote artists. ‘A couturier dresses human beings, not dreams,’ Vionnet would say. Their friendship lasted until Balenciaga’s death, and when I met Vionnet in the late 1960s she was just back from a two-week stay in Balenciaga’s country house near Orléans to recover from bronchitis and was wearing a floor-length bias-cut wool crepe skirt and matching vest that he had made for her in bright red (her own palette tended to shades of beige).

They were of equal historical importance – if Dior later called Balenciaga ‘the master of us all,’ he also said ‘no one has carried the art of dressmaking farther than Vionnet’ – but she was a generation older, having been born in 1876, and was already approaching glory when they met. Their clothes were dissimilar, Vionnet specializing in richly simple Greek-style folds, a deliciously errant vestal look, but they shared ardour and integrity – ‘a dress must be sincere,’ Vionnet said – and had so intense an understanding of fabrics that neither of them liked to sketch. ‘I hate sketching. Designers who sketch have no feeling for fabric,’ Vionnet said. Instead, she draped her fabrics on a wooden doll 31.5 inches tall, and Givenchy told me that when she was very old and bedridden and Balenciaga came to visit, she would show him something she had just confected on the doll with the wish that it might be useful to him. ‘And Cristóbal, with that marvellous smile, would say to me, Isn’t it adorable that at her age this woman would continue to work and give me her models,’ Givenchy said. ‘He had until the end of his life someone who counted enormously for him, and that was Madame Vionnet.’

To the young Balenciaga, Vionnet must have seemed like a favourite teacher, firm but kind, and indeed she had hoped to teach, but a neighbour pointed out to her father (her mother had run off) that further studies would mean more clothing bills, so at the age of ten she was yanked out of school and apprenticed to a dressmaker. ‘If I had become a professor I would just have had a brain,’ she said many years later. ‘Instead I discovered my hands and learned to love them.’ (2013: 17-20)

The House of Vionnet, at number 50, towered over its neighbours and triumphed in the architectural press as a perfect example of steel and glass Art Deco. It had 1,900 employees and 43 ateliers. While the grand salon of a house like Callot was heavy and crowded with furniture, Vionnet has a vast clean space framed with arches bordered in Lalique glass. When it came to opening his Paris house, Balenciaga followed Vionnet in keeping his public rooms simple and his private studio strictly off-limits. He did not follow Vionnet’s more compassionate innovations – a free staff cafeteria, medical service, and child care as well as classes for those who, like her, had had to leave school too young. Since he shared her loathing for copyists, having himself been one on a modest scale, he adopted her practice of photographing each model with its number, flat police lineup pictures, though he did not, like Vionnet, put his thumbprint on the label of every dress he made.

Vionnet was stronger and more authoritative than the young Balenciaga – he would not have said ‘I have never seen a fabric that refused to obey me,’ even though it was true – and it was her strength and encouragement that helped him free his fantasy and develop his prodigious technique. (ibid.: 20-22)

Isabella Coraça

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