The History of Balenciaga: Groundbreaking Couture, Controversies, ‘Cancellation’ and Demna’s Reinvention

Balenciaga, a brand known and loved for its kitschy couture, hardly resembles its unmistakably haute origins. However, much like the tenure of its originator, Cristóbal Balenciaga, the label’s modernization has simultaneously been the subject of public acclaim and controversy.

Cristóbal Balenciaga carefully studied clothesmaking in his childhood, spending hours observing his mother, who worked as a seamstress. In his teenage years, Balenciaga was recruited by the Marquesa de Casa Torres, a local noblewoman, who patronized his promising sewing skills by sending him to Madrid, where he received a formal education in fashion. The rest, as they say, is history.

More from WWD

Below, WWD chronicles the label’s legendary — albeit dramatic — saga.

Who Is Cristóbal Balenciaga? Founder of the Fashion House

Cristobal Balenciaga, designer, portrait
Cristóbal Balenciaga in 1927.

Balenciaga launched his namesake label in 1917 with the opening of a boutique in the resort town of San Sebastián, Spain. Madrid and Barcelona branches followed as Balenciaga’s brand began picking up steam. Members of the Spanish royal family were among the couturier’s earliest high society clientele.

Relocation to Paris and World War II

After the Spanish Civil War began, Balenciaga closed his Spanish stores and moved his couture house to Paris in 1937. That year, he opened the doors of his Avenue George V atelier to stage his first fashion show. His debut collection took inspiration from the Spanish Renaissance and more specifically, Diego Velázquez’s portraits of nobility. Balenciaga’s designs were an instant hit with the French press, leading him to be crowned the “King of Fashion.”

Following the Nazi takeover of Paris in 1940, Balenciaga was one of 60 companies allowed to operate during wartime, along with the likes of Chanel. Author and fashion historian Tansy E. Hoskins notes in her 2014 book, “Stitched Up,” that the designer’s relationship with Francisco Franco, an ally of Adolf Hitler’s, may have been one reason why he was allowed to continue operating his business in occupied Paris. Balenciaga had designed gowns for Franco’s wife, Carmen Polo, prior to World War II.

Balenciaga Revolutionizes Women’s Silhouettes — and Bucks Authority

Postwar, Balenciaga became an even bigger name and therefore, a major rival of other established couturiers including Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and Christian Dior. The latter, however, still sung his praises as a trendsetter. “Haute couture is like an orchestra, whose conductor is Balenciaga,” Dior once said. “We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the directions he gives.”

Balenciaga, couture, fashion
A Balenciaga evening gown from 1951.

In the ’50s, Balenciaga would solidify his spot in fashion history by reinventing women’s silhouettes. In a bold departure from Dior’s trendy “New Look,” Balenciaga favored broad shoulders and an undefined waistline. Balloon jackets, and high-waist baby-doll and shapeless sack dresses were known as his greatest sartorial contributions, praised for their universally flattering features.

In 1957 Balenciaga diverged from his high fashion peers — and caused controversy among the press — by altering the timing of his runway shows. Traditionally, designers would debut their collections four weeks before their retail release. Instead, Balenciaga, fearing copycats, decided to stage shows one day before his designs hit shelves. He would eventually reverse this decision in 1967.

Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Balenciaga continued designing for celebrities and aristocrats, counting Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, the Duchess of Windsor and Jackie Kennedy as loyal clients. In 1960, he designed Queen Fabiola of Belgium’s wedding dress, incorporating mink trim and his trademark drop-waist silhouette.

Queen Fabiola of Belgium, Balenciaga, wedding dress, royal, fashion, couture
King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium on their wedding day.

During this time, Balenciaga mentored several protégés who would go on to become legendary designers in their own right. Among them were Oscar de la Renta, André Courrèges, Emanuel Ungaro and Hubert de Givenchy.

Balenciaga frequently flouted rules set by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne, now known as the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. The organization sets specific guidelines for what counts as haute couture, and the classification is legally protected in France. Nevertheless, Balenciaga was a full member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture until 1957 and remained involved into the ‘60s.

Balenciaga Retires

In 1968, Balenciaga shuttered the doors of his atelier. One of his clients, Countess Mona Bismarck, was so distraught over his retirement that she grieved for three days.

Air France, Balenciaga, uniforms, fashion
Balenciaga’s Air France uniforms.

Balenciaga’s final bow included designing the flight attendant uniforms for Air France, which were in use until the mid-’70s. The couturier briefly came out of retirement in 1972, designing the wedding gown for Franco’s granddaughter, Carmen Martinez-Bordiú. Balenciaga died of heart failure just weeks after the ceremony. He was 77.

Balenciaga’s Revival and the Rise of Nicolas Ghesquière

After nearly two decades of dormancy, the Balenciaga brand was revived under the ownership of Jacques Bogart SA, with Michel Goma as its creative director. Josephus Thimister took over in 1991, but was fired following a poorly received fashion show.

Nicolas Ghesquière, Balenciaga, runway, fashion designer
Ghesquière at the finale of Balenciaga’s fall 2006 show.

In 1997, Nicolas Ghesquière, then just 25 years old, was promoted from his job in Balenciaga’s licensing department to the brand’s creative director. He had just four months to design the spring 1998 collection.

2001 was a big year for Balenciaga. The brand was acquired by Gucci Group, part of French luxury group PPR (later named Kering), joining a portfolio of fellow high fashion greats including Gucci, Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta.

That fall, Ghesquière launched the Lariat — a moto-inspired calfskin tote that later became known as the City bag. It only went into production after receiving Kate Moss’ blessing: she spotted the bag during a Balenciaga show and ordered one directly from Ghesquière, changing executives’ tune when they thought the Lariat wouldn’t sell.

Kate Moss, Balenciaga, City bag, fashion, celebrity style
Moss carries the City bag in 2003.

After it was photographed on the arms of several celebrities, the City bag became one of Balenciaga’s most popular styles, spawning spin-offs including the Le Cagole and the Neo Cagole.

Ghesquière also received his first major honor from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2001, taking home the CFDA award for International Designer.

Plagiarism Accusations and Continued Acclaim

Still, 2001 wasn’t all positive for Ghesquière — following the presentation of Balenciaga’s spring 2002 collection, he was accused of plagiarising a patchwork top designed by Kaisik Wong. The American couturier, who died in 1990, specialized in avant-garde garments that frequently incorporated embroidery and applique techniques. His designs were worn by the likes of Tina Turner, Elton John and Salvador Dalí.

Kaisik Wong, Balenciaga, runway, fashion
A dress from Balenciaga’s spring 2002 collection; Wong’s original design.

Ghesquière admitted to copying Wong’s design, using it as the basis for a strikingly similar dress. “I did it — yes,” he told The New York Times. “I’m very flattered that people are looking at my sources of inspiration. This is how I work. I’ve always said I’m looking at vintage clothes.”

In the same interview, Ghesquière explained that his assistant first saw Wong’s top in a 1974 reference book called “Native Flash & Funk.” “We thought it was a theatrical costume,” Ghesquière added.

This hiccup didn’t permanently damage the reputation of Balenciaga, or Ghesquière, who continued dressing celebrities throughout the early 2000s. He designed red carpet ensembles for Jennifer Connelly, Nicole Kidman and Chloë Sevigny, even crafting Kidman’s wedding dress for her nuptials to country star Keith Urban.

2004 saw the introduction of Balenciaga menswear, which Ghesquière also helmed.

Nicole Kidman, Oscars, Academy Awards, red carpet, fashion, celebrity style, Balenciaga
Kidman wears Balenciaga at the 2006 Oscars.

Alexander Wang Replaces Ghesquière

After 15 years, Balenciaga parted ways with Ghesquière in 2012, replacing him with Alexander Wang. Ghesquière, however, soon found himself in hot water with his former employer. In a 2013 interview with System magazine, Ghesquière critiqued Balenciaga’s corporate approach.

PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 06:  Designer Alexander Wang walks the runway after the Balenciaga show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2015/2016 on March 6, 2015 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Wang walks the runway after a Balenciaga show in 2015.

“I began to feel as though I was being sucked dry, like they wanted to steal my identity while trying to homogenize things,” he said.

According to Balenciaga, these comments were a violation of an agreement Ghesquière made with the company before his departure. Kering filed a lawsuit against the designer, accusing him of damaging the brand’s reputation. The dispute was eventually settled out of court.

Demna Succeeds Wang and Balenciaga’s Reinvention

Demna, fashion designer, Balenciaga, Vetements
Demna in 2015.

In 2015, Demna Gvasalia was appointed the new creative director of Balenciaga. At the time, Demna was best known for his luxury streetwear brand, Vetements, which, much like his future Balenciaga designs, poked fun at fashion and pop culture.

Demna’s first major contributions to Balenciaga were alternative takes on the sneaker. His Speed trainer, a knit calf-length design, mimicks a sock and has since spawned countless knockoffs. Like Birkenstocks or Crocs, fashion critics noted the Speed’s comfort while criticizing its aesthetics. The athleisure craze, however, proved more prominent, making the Speed a bestseller for Balenciaga.

Speed, shoes, fashion, Balenciaga
Speed shoes on display during Paris Fashion Week.

Demna continued to capitalize on the “ugly” shoe trend, launching the Triple S sneaker in 2017. David Tourniaire-Beauciel, the creative director of Clergerie, dreamed up the chunky design in collaboration with Demna. The lace-up shoes, which feature layered soles, exemplified the return of the “dad” sneaker — a moniker that references the unsightly athletic clodhoppers of the ’80s and ’90s. Much like the Speed shoe, the Triple S was a resounding success.

Cédric Charbit Takes Over as CEO

Cédric Charbit, Balenciaga, CEO
Charbit in 2021.

Cédric Charbit, who previously held executive positions at Saint Laurent and Pucci, joined Balenciaga as chief executive officer in 2016.

The following year, Balenciaga staged its first menswear fashion show. By 2018, the house was named Kering’s fastest-growing brand.

2021 was another banner year for Balenciaga, with the relaunch of couture, a much-hyped collaboration with “The Simpsons” and Demna’s partnership with Kanye West on a collection of Yeezy-inspired clothing for Gap.

On July 7, 2021, Demna relaunched couture at the house, which shows the collection, dubbed Balenciaga Couture, only once a year due to what the designer believes is its intensive craftsmanship. Since it shows only once yearly, Balenciaga currently is listed as a guest during Paris Couture Week.

2022 seemed off to a great start with Kim Kardashian named Balenciaga’s newest brand ambassador. The reality star and shapewear mogul was accompanied by Demna to the 2021 Met Gala, where she was fully obscured in a black gown resembling a body stocking. Naturally, memes ensued.

Kim Kardashian, Met Gala, 2021, Demna, Balenciaga, red carpet, celebrity, fashion
Kardashian attends the 2021 Met Gala.

Balenciaga Severs Its Relationship With West

By the fall, however, Balenciaga once again found itself at the center of controversy after its collaborator, West, made a series of antisemitic comments. In October, the brand formally cut ties with the rapper and fashion designer.

Balenciaga Is Accused of Child Exploitation in Campaign Controversy

Scandal plagued the label yet again in November, when the release of Balenciaga’s spring 2023 advertising campaign led to accusations of child exploitation. In several ads, children posed with teddy bears clothed in bondage gear, while books and court documents used as props in another campaign’s imagery generated online conspiracy theories. Google searches for “Is Balenciaga canceled?” skyrocketed following the uproar.

Kardashian issued a statement saying she would “reevaluate” her relationship with the brand. Meanwhile, Balenciaga sued the production company behind the campaign, North Six, but the suit was soon dropped.

In a 2023 interview with WWD, Charbit discussed Balenciaga’s three-year partnership with the National Children’s Alliance, which was announced following the advertising controversy. The program involves training nearly 2,000 mental health professionals to support survivors of abuse; educating the company on child protection, safety and well-being, as well as raising public awareness of these issues.

“The start of the year was a great time to listen, learn and engage,” he said, praising the NCA’s mission of “helping people envision a better future compared to what they may have suffered.”

New Ambassadors and Viral Trendsetting

Even artificial intelligence isn’t immune to Balenciaga’s influence. Early in the year, a series of YouTube creators uploaded AI art videos that reference the brand, imagining pop culture characters like Harry Potter, Batman and Michael Scott of “The Office” in Balenciaga advertisements.

The year 2023 also saw the introduction of three new brand ambassadors: Michelle Yeoh, Isabelle Huppert, and most recently, Kidman.

Nicole Kidman, Balenciaga, ambassador, fashion, celebrity style
Kidman poses for Balenciaga’s spring 2023 campaign.

Balenciaga’s ‘Comeback’ After ‘Cancellation’

The brand kept a relatively low profile following its most recent controversy, staging a pared-down fall 2023 show that wasn’t up to Demna’s standards. “It was very polished and how it was supposed to be,” the designer told WWD in October. “But I was a bit bored.”

Kim Kardashian, Balenciaga, fall 2024, runway, Demna
Kardashian at Balenciaga’s fall 2024 show.

Balenciaga’s fall 2024 fashion show presentation was lauded as the label’s “comeback” — and with a starry front row, featuring Kardashian and Kidman, it was apparent that the house hasn’t lost steam. Models and guests alike brandished now-viral accessories: purses shaped like coffee cups, water bottles and Erewhon grocery bags, all of which featured Balenciaga branding.

Disney+’s “Cristóbal Balenciaga”

Disney+’s series “Cristóbal Balenciaga,” a six-part biographical drama that chronicles the life and career of Cristóbal Balenciaga, was released in January 2024. The main cast includes Alberto San Juan as Balenciaga, Gemma Whelan as journalist Prudence Glynn, Belén Cuesta as Fabiola de Mora y Aragón, Thomas Coumans as Wladzio d’Attainville, Adam Quintero as Ramón Esparza, and Josean Bengoetxea as Nicolás Bizkarrondo.

A scene from the Disney+ series "Cristóbal Balenciaga."
A scene from the Disney+ series “Cristóbal Balenciaga.”

The series explored Balenciaga’s journey from humble beginnings in Spain to building his fashion empire. “Cristóbal Balenciaga” was directed by the trio of Spanish filmmakers Jon Garaño, Aitor Arregi and José Mari Goenaga.

Balenciaga Fashion Show Front Row in Los Angeles Brings Kim Kardashian, Nicole Kidman and Erewhon Bags

Kim Kardashian at Balenciaga Ready To Wear Fall 2024 held on December 2, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Kim Kardashian at Balenciaga Ready To Wear Fall 2024 held on December 2, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Kendall Jenner and Kim Kardashian at Balenciaga Ready To Wear Fall 2024 held on December 2, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Kendall Jenner and Kim Kardashian at Balenciaga Ready To Wear Fall 2024 held on December 2, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Brooklyn Beckham and Nicola Peltz at Balenciaga Ready To Wear Fall 2024 held on December 2, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Brooklyn Beckham and Nicola Peltz at Balenciaga Ready To Wear Fall 2024 held on December 2, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.

View Gallery

Launch Gallery: Balenciaga Fashion Show Front Row in Los Angeles Brings Kim Kardashian, Nicole Kidman and Erewhon Bags

Best of WWD