The Master of Us All
Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World
By Mary Blume
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374298739, 240pp.)
Publication Date: February 5, 2013
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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A sparkling life of the monumental fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga
When Cristóbal Balenciaga died in 1972, the news hit the front page of The New York Times. One of the most innovative and admired figures in the history of haute couture, Balenciaga was, said Schiaparelli, “the only designer who dares do what he likes.” He was, said Christian Dior,“the master of us all.”
But despite his extraordinary impact, Balenciaga was a man hidden from view. Unlike today’s celebrity designers, he saw to it that little was known about him, to the point that some French journalists wondered if he existed at all. Even his most notable and devoted clients—Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Hutton, a clutch of Rothschilds—never met him.
But one woman knew Balenciaga very well indeed. The first person he hired when he opened his Paris house (then furnished with only a table and a stool) was Florette Chelot, who became his top vendeuse—as much an adviser as a saleswoman. She witnessed the spectacular success of his first collection, and they worked closely for more than thirty years, until 1968, when Balenciaga abruptly closed his house without telling any of his staff. Youth-oriented fashion was taking over, Paris was in upheaval, and the elder statesman wanted no part of it.
In The Master of Us All , Mary Blume tells the remarkable story of the man and his house through the eyes of the woman who knew him best. Intimate and revealing, this is an unprecedented portrait of a designer whose vision transformed an industry but whose story has never been told until now.
Mary Blume, a native New Yorker who lives in Paris, was a longtime columnist for the International Herald Tribune. She is the author of Côte d’Azur: Inventing the French Riviera and of a collection of her Herald Tribune pieces, A French Affair.
In the '40s and '50s, Cristobal Balenciaga was an international fashion star â�� but a lot has changed since then. Fashion writer Robin Givhan says today's fashion world demands that designers "have the personality of a celebrity." That may not have gone over well with the secretive Spaniard. More at NPR.org
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“The wit and sharp eye of Mary Blume have made the French accessible . . . Rather like Nabokov with butterflies, she pins her specimens to the page in full color.” —Gore Vidal
“[A] penetrating and entertaining new biography.” —Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times
“Intimate, enthusiastic, and lively first biography of the enigmatic designer. . . Blume, former culture columnist for the International Herald Tribune, writes with wit and aplomb; she was also a Balenciaga client, a fact that clearly informed the revealing and laudatory perspective shared with readers here.” —Publishers Weekly
“[A] captivating new biography . . . [Blume] rounds out her recollections and Florette’s with astute reporting, tracing Balenciaga’s—and haute couture’s—rise against a richly embroidered swath of social history. . . Despite her impossibly private subject, Blume goes a long way toward illuminating Balenciaga within his own context, finding his scope of influence on par with that of fashion’s other revolutionaries, Chanel and Vionnet.” —Megan O’Grady, Vogue.com
“Elegantly weaving interviews with Balenciaga’s last living chums . . . with cultural history, Blume’s account follows Balenciaga’s top vendeuse Florette Chelot, who provides a keen . . . perspective on midcentury Luxe. Like a Balenciaga suit designed to skim the body rather than hug it, Blume’s artful blend of history, reporting, and chat conjures the designer’s world. . .” —Rhonda Lieberman, Bookforum
“Blume’s extensive interviews with [Cristóbal Balenciaga’s top saleswoman, Florette] Chelot, who stayed with Balenciaga from his first collection, in 1937, to his last, in 1968, yield fresh material about an enigmatic man whose creations—such as ‘the pillbox,’ ‘the sack,’ and ‘the baby-doll’—are still imitated today, even if his reclusive self-effacement is not. Balenciaga cultists will delight in such character-revealing minutiae as the designer's technique for stirring up impeccable martinis (blot the ice first), his habit of wearing a hairnet to relax his curls, and his maniacal penchant for re-pinning sleeves. Blume’s needle’s-eye portrait nearly supports Hubert de Givenchy’s conviction that his mentor was ‘a perfect man’ and almost renders plausible Diana Vreeland’s claim that the novel beauty of a Balenciaga show so overpowered her ‘it was possible to blow up and die.’” —Amy Fine Collins, Vanity Fair