GETARIA, Spain — High on the hill above this medieval port town is the grave of Cristóbal Balenciaga. Its granite slab is plain and noble — as are the sculpted dresses displayed in the new Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa in Getaria, the magisterial couturier’s hometown in the Basque country of Spain. The cream roses on the tomb are a tribute from Hubert de Givenchy, who described Balenciaga as “my idol” and was the founding president of the foundation that has spent a decade working toward creating the bold new exhibition space here.
At the opening of the museum in June, Queen Sofía of Spain, greeted by a choir of singers and folkloric Basque music, gave the royal seal of approval to a designer who was the son of a fisherman and a seamstress. The mansion abutting the modernist museum is a reminder of the couturier’s story: it was the summer home of the Marquesa de Casa Torres, who allowed the 11-year-old Cristóbal to copy her Parisian dresses. He helped his widowed mother and trained in neighboring San Sebastián as a tailor. Balenciaga’s 19 years as a Spanish treasure — broken by the civil war of 1936 — were followed by more than three decades at the summit of Paris high fashion. He closed his house in 1968 and died in 1972, at age 77.
The cream of Spanish society – some of whom had donated dresses to the museum – turned out for the opening and shared memories of the designer. “Balenciaga was serious but he had the joy of life, I remember him with my mother in Pigalle, laughing their heads off over onion soup,” said Sonsoles Díez de Rivera, who attended the opening in an impeccable checked suit from 1965. Mrs. Díez de Rivera, whose mother, the Marquesa de Llanzol, was a friend of Balenciaga’s, toured the museum with Queen Sofía, treating her to anecdotal snippets about the works on show: her mother’s black beanie hat with a whoosh of feathers, her own baby doll “maternity” dress with fuchsia flowers, and her mother’s full-skirted 1950s dress, transformed for her daughter by Balenciaga with a scarlet petticoat. Most dramatic is Mrs. Díez de Rivera’s 1957 wedding gown, its silver embroideries inspired by the dresses of Madonna statues in Seville. Other bridal dresses on display include the legendary mink-trimmed wedding gown of Queen Fabiola of Belgium, whose aristocratic Spanish family summered in Getaria.
Among the current generation of Spanish fashion designers, there can be no doubt about their reverence for Balenciaga, or the relevance of his work to theirs. “Balenciaga is the essence of Spain,” said Estrella Archs, who is concentrating on her own label after a brief stint at Ungaro. “There is a side that is very rustic and a side very sophisticated about Spain,” she said. “His work was sophisticated and very pure – his modernity was about being very simple, with a very Spanish modesty and pride.” And the overall impression of the museum is positive: a vast space to display Balenciaga’s legacy on his home territory. “It’s fantastic,” Queen Sofía said. “After waiting so long, I am glad I lived to see it!”