‘Fashion isn’t what it used to be,” a journalist purrs at a couturier outside the funeral of Coco Chanel in the opening minutes of Disney+’s latest biographical series. And in the case of the couturier in question, Cristóbal Balenciaga, it really isn’t.
Balenciaga was one of the most ingenious and influential figures in fashion, whom Chanel called “a couturier in the truest sense of the word. The others are simply fashion designers.” He had a devotion to craft that led him to be regarded as “The Master” of fashion, despite operating in the tumultuous mid-century. Fast forward to today, however, and things sure ain’t what they used to be, with the name once synonymous with exquisite detail now most frequently seen plastered on the side of plasticky trainers or emblazoned across the oversized jumpers of reality television stars. As the programme shows, Balenciaga was always an artist at the forefront of what design could be but, from Simpsons-based campaigns, bondage teddy bears , £1,350 leather trash bags and towels worn as skirts it does seem that the subject of this series might be horrified by what his name has come to represent.
The series, with the rough framework that Balenciaga is recounting the events to the journalist Prudence Glynn (Gemma Whelan) in a rare interview, covers the years he spent in Paris, several of which were under Nazi occupation. As a closeted gay man, he was particularly vulnerable during this time but as one of the business partners in his couture house reminds him, “things aren’t better in Spain”. In these troubled times, Balenciaga must decide what is worth fighting for, and if his artform has any place in such far-reaching misery. But despite the losses faced on a personal and global scale, he ultimately holds that his work, and making the world a more beautiful place one garment at a time, is a worthy endeavour.
As shows go, it doesn’t contain the high drama and violent twists of House of Gucci or American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Balenciaga’s life was not without tragedy, but how this affected his creative output is what the show and the man grapple with, designing collections entirely in black when he is in mourning. Fittingly for a designer who obsessively pored over the details and construction of his garments that were almost imperceptible to anyone but him, the clothes themselves play a central role. Beyond Alberto San Juan’s elegant but imposing performance as the great man himself, the most screen time is afforded to the complexity of sleeves.
Befitting its subject the series is also utterly gorgeous, lit with sensuous golden glows and shallow focus that picks out the period details in the architecture, clothes and passive-aggressive dynamics between Balenciaga’s many rivals.
The series concludes in the 60s, where Balenciaga was dressing royalty and his designs were at their most innovative, making jackets from a single piece of fabric and creating sculptural avante garde pieces that even now would draw gasps on any catwalk. There’s a pressure to move into prêt-a-porter and not only make custom couture, something that Balenciaga – a man who can see God in the tiniest pleat – feels goes against what he stands for. He loves and he loses across the decades, but the character is so devoted to his art that for him it is easier to process the death of a loved one than the creeping popularity of polyester.
The tone is one of highbrow drama, with reverence for its subject and his life’s work. Its only real laugh-out-loud line comes when the show winks at the current state of things. Not knowing how his fashion house will evolve, he considers closing it down and confesses to his confidant Ramón (Adam Quintero) of his fears, saying: “I’m sure that without me, Maison Balenciaga can’t go on. What sense would that make?” when Ramon offers that “Yves Saint Laurent took over after Dior” the blood drains from Balenciaga’s face and he growls “I’ve always found that disgusting. How can someone sign with my name?”
To watch this series, and get wrapped up in the beauty, craft and dignity of Balenciaga’s life’s work feels luxurious in itself, as it’s created with a care that befits its legendary subject. He was a man who cared little for the spotlight or personal fame, so this non-salacious look at his pursuit of excellence rather than his inner turmoil is a seamless extension of his legacy.
Always at the forefront of innovation, it’s unclear what Balenciaga, who died in 1972, would have thought of Kim Kardashian being wrapped head to toe in yellow caution tape printed with his name. He may have admired the pushing of boundaries that his name came to represent. But watching this artist at work across six episodes and 30 years, your heart can’t help but break a little that Balenciaga isn’t what it used to be.
Leila Latif / The Guardian