Exploring the life of Iconic Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga

“Cristóbal Balenciaga is one of the most universal Spanish icons, and at the same time, a great unknown to the public due to the seclusion and extreme privacy that marked his life,” says Sofía Fábregas, Vice President of original production, Disney+, Spain. “We are acquainted with his career and the great influence that his work has had among contemporaries such as Dior or Givenchy in France and, globally, in later generations. The general public, however, is not aware of the impact that his figure has had on the history of universal fashion.”

Alberto San Juan as Cristóbal Balenciaga Disney+ original series

This six-episode series chronicles the nearly thirty years Cristóbal spent in Paris and how his family, partners, collaborators, clients, friends and rivals helped forge the Balenciaga mystery. Cristóbal was a pioneer in technique and style with the precision of an engineer and the mysticism of the great artist that he was. He was ahead of his time in marketing and communication strategies, artistic and business control, and identity of his fashion designs. He was fashion’s first creative director and his life and work have an astonishingly contemporary and relevant reading,” says Fábregas.

Cristóbal Balenciaga was filmed on more than 90 sets in Spain between the Basque Country, Navarre and Madrid; and in France, between Paris, Bordeaux and Toulouse.

‘Cristóbal Balenciaga’, the series, is a psychological approach that shows the great importance that the couturier from Guetaria had and has today in the global fashion world,” says Lourdes Iglesias.

“The idea of writing a series on Cristóbal Balenciaga sprang to life in Korea, where I lived for three years. I met a young Korean fashion designer who had studied in Europe and who told me about Cristóbal Balenciaga as the designer she most admired. It was she who opened my eyes to the mystery surrounding the character, who she thought was French, but who was Basque like me,” says Lourdes Iglesias.

“When I returned to live in the Basque Country, in the middle of quarantine, the idea of making a series about him took shape. I wrote a first project focused on the period when he lived in France, since that allowed me to become acquainted with the best years of haute couture and its crisis with the arrival of ready-to-wear. Miren Arzalluz, director of the City of Paris Fashion Museum and a leading couture specialist, was the first person with whom I shared my ideas. She gave me a lot of input and I immediately asked her to collaborate on the project,” says Iglesias. “A chain of events led me to Disney after I had contacted those at Moriarti. Sofía Fábregas immediately saw the potential of the idea, with the directors and the musician Alberto Iglesias who had also joined the group. So, within a few days we were already working on the screenplays.

The Cristóbal Balenciaga series for Disney+ marks the debut of the trio of directors, Aitor Arregi, Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga, in the world of series. These three filmmakers have been working together for more than 20 years in their production company Moriarti and have achieved great success in international festivals with their film productions, which include feature films, documentaries and short films.

Moriarti has received more than 450 awards, including 12 Goya Awards and 31 nominations, two nominations to represent Spain at the Oscars, the Special Jury Prize at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, the Silver Shell for Best Director, the Best Screenplay Award and the FIPRESCI Award, the Forqué Award for Best Film, an EFA Award, a Platinum Award and the Sant Jordi Award for Best Film. The last film directed by the trio, La trinchera infinita (The Endless Trench), won, among others, the Best Director Award, Best Screenplay Award and the Critics’ Award at the San Sebastián Festival, as well as two Goya Awards. Before this, Handia (Giant), directed by Arregi and Garaño, won the Special Jury Prize at the 65th San Sebastián Festival and 10 Goya Awards. While Moriarti’s first two fiction films, Loreak (Flowers) (Spanish Oscar nominee) and 80 egunean (For 80 Days) (winner of more than 30 international awards), were directed by Garaño and Goenaga. Previously, Arregi and Goenaga co-directed the feature documentary Lucio, which was nominated for a Goya.

“Despite being considered by many as the greatest couturier in history, few figures of the twentieth century are as seclusive as Cristóbal Balenciaga. He rarely allowed himself to be photographed and access to his workshop and fashion shows was very restricted. He never came out to say hello at the end of the fashion shows and he only gave 2 or 3 interviews throughout his life. Among the bibliography about him, the analysis of his work abounds, but little is known about his most intimate sphere, and the various testimonies that exist about his person often contradict each other.

This insurmountable aspect of Balenciaga, far from scaring us away, was one of its main attractions when it came to involving us in this project. Ever since Lourdes Iglesias presented us with the proposal to join her, we always saw in ‘Cristóbal Balenciaga’, the series, an invitation to study based on the few traces that the character had been leaving throughout his life.

As on other occasions when we have based ourselves on a real character, beyond the chronological narration of the events that define his life, what interests us most about our protagonist is his psychological dimension and, above all, his potential to speak to us about something universal: the character as a vehicle to deal with a theme that is intimately linked to him, but that at the same time can engage all viewers.

In the case of Cristóbal Balenciaga, absolutely everything led us to talk about the same concept: the need for control. For us, everything in him revolves around that need, something common to all of us, but which in his case reached the heights of a real obsession.

And isn’t this obsession with control what sets Cristóbal Balenciaga apart from other fashion designers and makes him superior? It is possible he did not consciously seek to become a fashion designer, but his controlling mind led him inexorably to it. For him, fashion was personal. Something that adapts to the individuality of each body, but also something that should respect one’s individuality as a creator. He felt a great responsibility towards each of his garments, even once they were sold, because in a way they were a little piece of him.

How could such a profile be adapted to the guidelines set by mass manufacturing? For a control freak, ready-to-wear is presented as the great villain of the show, because, in a way, that means disengaging: making a design, sketching it, taking the first patterns and moving on to something else. It’s not that Cristóbal Balenciaga despised ready-to-wear, it’s simply that his mind did not allow him to delegate enough to adapt to it.

After starting her career in German cinema in the early 1980s, the Madrid Movida and its creative explosion dragged Bina Daigeler to Spain, where she has remained ever since. Working on films such as Alatriste, Los Fantasmas de Goya (Goya’s Ghosts) or El camino de los ingleses (Summer Rain), where Pepo Ruiz Dorado met Bina Daigeler, he joined her team.

“When one day you receive a call to create the costumes for a series about the master, the great designer, the genius Cristóbal Balenciaga, our imagination flies, we are filled with the excitement of doing something so special, but we are also aware of the great challenge of living up to the Maison Balenciaga.

From the first dialogues it is very clear that this is a fictional story about an extremely discreet and enigmatic creator, but if there is something that will have to be true and that cannot generate the slightest doubt, it is the costumes of the ‘Cristóbal Balenciaga’ project.

There are hardly any photos of Cristóbal Balenciaga, since he was someone who was extremely protective of his private life. We have no sound record of his voice, as he only gave a couple of interviews and the stories from the time of those who knew him remain sifted… but his work is catalogued, photographed, studied and exhibited in museums to which we have had access, especially the archives of the Maison Balenciaga and the Galliera Museum in Paris.

Our challenge was not to imitate, copy garments, or collections; our challenge was to make Balenciaga garments today that would fill the screen and help to weave the story that our directors were putting together.

And, as in the work of any great artist, we each have our favourite painting or sculpture; in Balenciaga’s work there are thousands of “favourite” garments. They can’t all be there, but those which are there are pieces of the gear that make the story advance. They are characters that take shape, move and, without speaking, are part of the dialogue.

The challenge was enormous, but so was the enthusiasm and love for the job. The entire team understood this challenge and, just as in Maison Balenciaga, each member had a fundamental role to play. And the master’s creations had to be accompanied by that exquisite world of the society of the time. That truth had to be in the clients and the army of workshop managers, journeymen, seamstresses; in the portraits of real characters that accompany the master from Guetaria.

And it was necessary to dress the main character, to give shape to the man, the boss who is demanding to the limit, the figure who does not want to stand out, but who has the most trained eye, the one who sees the smallest of imperfections beforehand…Would Cristóbal approve of this? Would he wear this? That was the big daily question. The answer is the work accomplished, the love and care put into each garment and detail, choosing each fabric, each tie for our Cristóbal as a tribute to the creator we admire so much.

For us, the great value of ‘Cristóbal Balenciaga’ is in its creative process; it is the technical progression based on the tests on mannequins; it is hours in the workshop with ideas that transmute to give life to new ideas. And, in short, this has been our contribution: to create, together with a great team, a handcrafted work to dress the series. We hope you enjoy it as much as we have enjoyed making it.”

  • A MATTER OF STYLE – In Paris in 1937, after a successful career in Spain, Cristóbal Balenciaga (Alberto San Juan) and his partners present his first Parisian haute couture collection. However, the beginnings are more difficult than expected: the reviews are lukewarm and there are few commissions. Cristóbal fears that the business may fail, especially because his partners, Nicolas Bizkarrondo (Josean Bengoetxea) and Virgilia Bizkarrondo (Cecilia Solaguren), have invested all they have in the firm. He also doubts his talent as a designer and his ability to match up to the haute couture houses in Paris. He knows he has to find a style of his own that defines his work.
  • THE OCCUPATION – In Paris in 1940, Cristóbal and his partners face the hostile, dangerous atmosphere generated by the German occupation of France. Faced with this adversity and the scarcity of fabrics, many haute couture houses decide to close. However, Maison Balenciaga carries on operating, thanks to Cristóbal’s controversial decision to bring Spanish fabrics to Paris.
  • A RIVAL TO BALENCIAGA – The war has ended, and Cristóbal Balenciaga is established as one of the kings of Parisian haute couture. But his position is questioned by the unexpected arrival of a new designer, Christian Dior (Patrice Thibaud). His “New Look” line and his overwhelming media capacity cause an upheaval in Cristóbal’s career. Despite his obsession with control and his rejection of public exposure, he is forced to give way and feature the first perfume from Maison Balenciaga in an advertising campaign: Le Dix.
  • REPLICAS – Despite the recent losses in his life, Cristóbal’s style is refined and reaches its peak with semi-fitted suits and the new “midi” line. However, leaks and poor-quality replicas of his designs lead to a heated disagreement with his partner Nicolas Bizkarrondo. The tension worsens when Cristóbal decides to support the career of the young Hubert de Givenchy (Adrien Dewitte) and ignore the rules of the Parisian Haute Couture Union in order to have total control of his designs.
  • DRESSING A QUEEN – In 1960, Maison Balenciaga is commissioned to design the wedding dress for Fabiola de Mora y Aragón (Belén Cuesta), the future queen of Belgium. However, his privacy is compromised when sketches of the dress are leaked and Coco Chanel (Anouk Grinberg) hints at Balenciaga’s homosexuality in an interview. Balenciaga unfairly blames Ramón Esparza (Adam Quintero), his faithful collaborator, which causes a crisis in their relationship.
  • I AM BALENCIAGA – At the end of the ‘60s, Cristóbal achieves his peak stylistic level. But haute couture is starting to suffer due to competition from prêt-à-porter and the decline in the quality of fabrics, which negatively affects sales. Faced with the possibility of having to close his Maison, Cristóbal accepts the proposal from Air France to design its hostesses’ uniforms. But everything goes wrong, and he realizes that his obsession with control has no place in this new world. In 1968, at age seventy-three, insisting that he can’t allow his creation to continue without him, Cristóbal decides to close Maison Balenciaga.