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The Master’s Last Apprentice: How Oscar de la Renta continued Cristóbal Balenciaga’s Legacy

R: Oscar De La Renta fitting a Client in Madrid C. 1956. L: Cristóbal Balenciaga fitting a mannequin in one of his last collections in 1968

In the world of most critically acclaimed art forms, arguably high fashion, and in particular haute couture or the increasingly niche sector of dressing for the most exclusive of evening occasions, it can be a rather unnerving path to escape the shadow of a great artist who in every sector of their expertise, exceeded beyond comprehensible evaluation by producing distinctive work of the highest quality. In doing so, they left a mark upon history declaring a warning to all who try to challenge his or her exquisitely elevated manipulation of the status quo. Cristóbal Balenciaga was a rare personified phenomenon of this nature, to occur sparingly in a series of multiple generations within his manner of craft, but with every master that graces the earth, there’s an apprentice who continues their formidable legacy. In Balenciaga’s case he had many: André Courrèges, Emanuel Ungaro, Hubert de Givenchy, and to this very day as a testament in the American arena of fashion, Oscar de La Renta and his present house. 

A Studio Illustration from Eisa San Sebastian. C. 1960's

    Oscar de La Renta’s direct association with Cristóbal Balenciaga didn’t appear to be an out of body experience at face value for the budding young designer. Leaving his home country of the Dominican Republic at 19 for the exciting coming of age change of scenery to Madrid, Spain in the early 1950's, there he became acquainted with a mutual friend of the fabled Basque couturier who saw the adolescent’s potential talent as an illustrator of fine female frocks. Oscar was immediately taken up to work at Balenciaga’s couture branch in the Spanish Capital, Eisa, which in itself was an abbreviated riff of Cristóbal’s mother’s maiden name. Sadly, instead of working under the head of an atelier flou (for dressmaking) or tailleur (for tailoring), his main responsibility was to “pick up” the left over pins seamstresses may have left behind or fallen to the ground after a long days work in the design studio. Even though he never fully grasped the opportunity of thriving directly under the master’s wing, his greatest accomplishment during the his brief yet precious time there, was to be in the privileged audience of seeing Balenciaga “work in action”, providing a rock solid foundation to his ethos in fashion for the rest of his life.

   L: Oscar De La Renta. R: Cristóbal Balenciaga

Oscar de la Renta of course had many other illustrious experiences post 1950’s Madrid, particularly in Paris under the whimsical creative tenure of Antonio Castillo head of Lanvin (to whom Oscar embellished his responsibilities at Eisa, which got him the chance to be hired as his assistant designer.) and Elizabeth Arden in New York (where many other game changing American designers worked to further hone their craft, most notably Charles James), but upon observing the glorious arc of Oscar’s career, one cannot help but to dissect certain elements that attribute the original strokes of inspiration that ultimately lead to Balenciaga: The ever suspending quality of perpetual movement in the structurally ruffled hems of a flamenco dancer, the ornate nearly borderline obscene extravagance of embellishments from the paintings of Velasquez’s Infantas, to the diversity of the appeasing "Semi-fitted" silhouette suit, which complements the statures of most women whether petite or robust.

    What better way to explain this unique correlation of style than with examples within Decades itself? The first example is from the house of Oscar de la Renta's Spring/Summer 2016 RTW collection designed by Peter Copping, Oscar's immediate successor postmortem. To the right, presented is an archival Cristóbal Balenciaga haute couture creation circa 1962, featured from the 2015 Didier Ludot sale at Sotheby's. Even though the composition of color in both pieces are starkly different, it is important to notice that in the nature of both houses, the true evidence is in the attention to details.

    If you look closer at the overall silhouette, the proportions are quite similar from top to hem: you can notice the fine outline of the semi-fitted traits from the vertically linear qualities of the princess seamed bodice tapering ever so slightly at the waist while progressing to the subtle gathering of the skirt below. It suggests elegance without the frivolous quality of extensive fabric, elongating one's form without drawing to much conscious attention to the actual waist.

    Another important detail of similarity is the actual fabric of both dresses. Balenciaga was known for experimenting with some of the most architecturally nuanced fabrics of his time, which among his thesis as a perpetual learner in his craft, he eventually created his own fabric in collaboration with the Swiss textile manufacturer Abraham called Silk Gazar, which was to shape pieces with a sculptural nature, without sacrificing the bothersome factor of excess weight. Although this instead is "Cloque" silk in both dresses, it was a structured yet light fabric used by Balenciaga time and time again supplied by the likes of Abraham, which became prevalent in the future designs of his apprentices such as Givenchy, and in this case, Oscar de la Renta.

   With these two pieces above, there is a similarity in the use of this emotion inducing hue of fuchsia which has a very special, yet arguably gruesome place in the cultural history of Spain Itself: The Bullring. The left duchess silk satin coat by Oscar de la Renta derives from his ornate collections of the excessive 1980's, while the right exemplified detail of a silk shantung dress is from Balenciaga's spring/summer 1966 haute couture collection, beautifully feautured in Hamish Bowle's fantastic 2011 exhibition of Balenciaga's direct connection to Spanish Heritage Balenciaga and Spain at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.

    The Bullfighter's costume was continually a referenced inspiration in Balenciaga's career from the embellishment of the bolero jackets in sumptuous velvet with rich embroideries and silk pom pom details, to the very colors exemplified in the excitement of the sport. In the case of these two pieces, the use of Fuschia was a key color incorporated into the "Muleta" Cape's purpose to draw the attention of the bull from the matador, by heightening its visual stimulation with the use of such a strong vibrant color. One could say, that the pieces could be an innuendo for a social situation, where the audacious wearer of the brightly colored piece, is stimulating the animal magnetism of an observing individual, drawing them in for the kill. Regardless to the manner of interpretation for these two designers, it is evident that the way in which the vivid tone of fuchsia was used, clearly derives from the legacy of this peculiar form of Spanish entertainment. 

    As a final form of analysis between these two excellent executors of elegance in high fashion, a comparison of the manipulation of volume is in order, as it is quite prevalent in the house codes of both Cristóbal Balenciaga and Oscar de la Renta. The Decades Inc. example on the right is from the debut fall/winter 2015 collection of Peter Copping, Oscar's Protege, and to the right, a fall/winter 1959 sketch directly from the Balenciaga archives in Paris, that defines the origin of a particular dress within the permanent collection of the Phoenix Art Musuem.

The play on volume so ingeniously prevalent throughout Balenciaga's work, was to make sure that an architectural shape can be created by using the least amount of fabric, as long as the right degree of strategy was used in the draping and seaming of the piece, to further increase the factor of lightness and ease movement to its lucky, well heeled wearer. The dome shape skirt of the 1959 dress was tactfully constructed with inverted pleating, and the unique placement of panels throughout, further exemplified when executed in a light yet stiff fabric like silk taffeta.

This technique of inverted pleating with the correct placement of panels is directly seen in the Oscar de La Renta dress, with the suggestion of a cunning update, by using multiple panels of fabric vertically throughout, creating a form of symmetry of each angle to an admiring viewer. This technique was also utilized in one of the most famous variations of Oscar’s beloved fit and flare dresses, particularly in the gathered drop skirt of the “Carrie Bradshaw” taffeta dress which in itself is a modern and shortened reinterpretation of Balenciaga’s gathered “Zurburban” dresses of spring 1961 as seen below.

    As we continue to live our lives by adorning ourselves in beauty, we cannot forget the creative origins as a testament to the mastermind who initially executed it. With Diet Prada constantly policing the latest collections to condemn the practice of blatant plagiarism, it is comforting to know that in certain aspects of dress there is a continued lineage of heritage passed down from generation to generation in the form of master to apprentice. While neither Oscar de La Renta nor Cristóbal Balenciaga are longer with us physically, the overall romantic tone of the former’s work is still present in the modern collections from Peter Copping to currently that of Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia, which reflects much of the latter Basque designer. It is an impression, a positive one, that if you create an original work with such vigor and passion from the start, you will influence your artistic sector for generations to come. A valid confirmation that the master and former apprentice are alive once more continuing their work in the elegantly creative minds of many. 


R: Oscar de La Renta F/W 2020. L: Balenciaga Haute Couture S/S 1958


 Available Pieces of Balenciaga-esque Oscar De La Renta at Decades 

Oscar de la Renta Resort 2016 RTW collection. $590

Oscar De La Renta Resort 2016 RTW. $695

Oscar de la Renta Resort 2018 RTW. $595 

Oscar de la Renta Spring 2016 RTW. $695

 Oscar de la Renta Spring 2016 RTW. $495

Oscar de la Renta Fall 2015 RTW. $495

 Oscar De La Renta Satin Coat C. 1980's. $895



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