What inspired you to write this book? A few years ago I was on holiday on the Greek island of Patmos. I was invited one night to a private house for dinner and the person sitting next to me turned out to be Hamish Bowles of American Vogue. Hamish told me he was curating an exhibition on Cristóbal Balenciaga. I confessed that I didn’t know much about him. I felt a bit embarrassed and remember telling Hamish how I wished I could get to know the great man’s work better. Then in 2012 Vogue contacted me about writing a book in their new series on fashion designers. I wasn’t sure I wanted to write a book on a fashion designer, but when they said “It’s Cristobal Balenciaga” I quickly changed my tune.
What other jobs have you had? My favourite other job was working at a science museum in Miami where my job was to feed and clean out the animals. We had birds of prey and baby alligators as well as real live boas – much more glamorous to wrap round your neck than the feather kind.
What was the most interesting fact you discovered when writing this book? Balenciaga was known to have given only one interview in his life. After I had finished writing the book, Miren Arzalluz, who heads the Balenciaga Museum in Spain, revealed to me that she had come across a second interview. This was explosive stuff. No one else has ever written about a second interview, and I immediately rushed up to Colindale, a sleepy northern suburb of London where the British Library has its newspaper archives, and dug out the relevant Paris Match. In this second interview Balenciaga finally reveals the truth about how he came to be a couturier. It’s a scoop, and a wonderful gift to the book from a true Balenciaga scholar. I was really grateful to Miren. I had a problem though. My book had already gone to press. It was only after a lot of foot-stamping that I convinced the publishers to recall the manuscript. And even then, they would only allow changes to one single page. Whereas I had written on several pages that Balenciaga had only ever given one interview in his life. I solved the problem by describing the scoop as ‘not a full interview’. It’s a bit fudgy but I think I can get away with it as all Balenciaga talks about in the article is the one, extraordinary story of how it all began.
What was the best thing about writing this book? Going through the Vogue archives and uncovering page after dusty page of beautiful – and at times completely nuts – Balenciaga designs. Many of the images I chose from the magazine have not been seen since they were published in the thirties, forties or fifties. I was particularly happy when Gael Mamine, the archivist at the house of Balenciaga, commented on how fresh the images were, how many even he hadn’t seen before.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? Drusilla Beyfus was writing her book Vogue on Hubert de Givenchy at the same time as me. Givenchy worshipped Balenciaga and Dru and I started out exchanging information on the two designers’ friendship. Then we got carried away and sort of morphed into them. In our email exchanges, she became the charming and eager ‘Hube’ while I became the rather irritable and ironic ‘Crissy’ – it helped us through the weary hours of research.
If you could own a piece of Balenciaga’s couture, what would it be? What I love about his clothes is what they say about a woman. They give her authority and confidence. They also draw out a subtle sensuality like a discreet perfume. Balenciaga understood a woman’s body, as it were, from a woman’s point of view. Had I been staggeringly wealthy I think I would quickly have become like Mona Bismarck, who dressed entirely in Balenciaga and took to her bed for three days when he closed his doors. But if forced to choose just one piece, it would have to be the piece he designed for another great couturier, Madeleine Vionnet. When Vionnet retired and became bedridden, Balenciaga made a housecoat for her. Imagine, slobbing about the house in a Balenciaga housecoat – that’s luxury.
Which books do you recommend? If readers would like to know more about Balenciaga, there are a couple of really good books out there. I recommend ‘Balenciaga’ by Lesley Ellis Miller of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and ‘Cristóbal Balenciaga: The Making of a Master’ by Miren Arzalluz. Miren is the Sherlock Holmes of Balenciaga scholarship. For months she went through the mountains of dreary household lists and receipts belonging to the Casa Torres family to discover for sure whether or not Balenciaga’s mother worked for them as a seamstress. For something shorter, Mary Blume’s ‘The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World’, is a delightful rootle behind the scenes at the couture house, based on Blume’s friendship with Mme. Florette, Balenciaga’s best vendeuse.
What else would you like to write a book about? Azzedine Alaia, whose work for me is on the same plane as Balenciaga’s. I have always loved his work, then I interviewed him and fell in love with him too. But there are better people than me out there to write that book, unfortunately.
Read my review of ‘Vogue on Cristobal Balenciaga’ here.