What The Balenciaga Museum Near San Sebastian Spain Teaches Us About Success

By Abi King | Spain

Dec 07

The Balenciaga Museum near San Sebastian, Spain

It’s a blustery Sunday morning on the day we sweep around the coast. Tawny rocks lead to wet sands where the waves and spray have carved arrow-headed tiger stripes across the beach. A lone man walks a dog and the waves carry chevron markings in heavy grey and foamy white.

It’s a short drive from San Sebastian to here in Getaria, a small town where Basque flags sleep on balconies and pintxos clusters in bars.

The beautiful beach from San Sebastian Spain to the Balenciaga Museum via @insidetravellab

The road climbs up, away from the coast and towards the monuments to Getaria’s most famous sons.

One, a statue to Juan Sebastian Elcano: the first man to circumnavigate the globe.

The other, a gleaming purpose-built complex to a man whose name is surely known across the world. If not his first name, Cristobal, then his last one for sure.


Juan Sebastian Elcano - the first man to circumnavigate the globe

Juan Sebastian Elcano – the first man to circumnavigate the globe

The Balenciaga Museum

The Balenciaga Museum, as you might expect, is about fashion and the museum presents outfits like rare jewels.

Yet even if fashion is not your strength (as indeed, it’s not mine,) there’s plenty to intrigue and inspire.

The time capsule of social history is one: seeing waistlines and silhouettes change in tune with women earning the right to vote, to enter certain professions and to show a little more flesh.

Balenciaga is a true couturier. Only he is able to cut fabric, assemble it & sew it with his own hands. The others are merely draftsmen

Coco Chanel

The museum wears sharp, gloss diagonals, a deliberate contrast to the building it’s twinned with: the red-bricked Palacio Aldamar.

And the story of Balenciaga, and that house, as ever is the most interesting of all.

The Secret of Success

Why do some of us succeed where others fail? Why does some talent break through, while others toils on in oblivion?

Success requires talent, for sure. Unless, perhaps, we’re talking about certain pop-reality-manufactured-acts. And it might be more polite to just keep quiet on that.

Conventional wisdom often offers up that success requires prior success: wealthy parents, family connections, silver spoons in mouths and all other manner of uncomfortable sounding analogies. And then at the other end of the spectrum is the viewpoint that abject suffering is a prerequisite for success. That if life is too easy, there is no need to create, no urge to strive.

Inside the Balenciaga Museum

Inspirational People

Yet the pages of my notebook blog are filled with stories of inspirational people who seem to shrug off both stereotypes.

There’s the story of Louis Armstrong who changed the world of jazz. Marie Curie and radiation in science. Nelson Mandela and freedom in South Africa*.

Ferran Adria and the development of food. And many more besides.

So how about Cristobal Balenciaga? What led him from this blustery corner of northeast Spain

Well, it turns out to be no accident that the sleek, angular museum clings on to a glazed brick seaside house.

This house, the Palacio Aldamar, was the summer residence of the Marchioness de Casa Torres, the Queen of Belgium’s grandmother.

Timeline in the Balenciaga Museum

The Cinderella Story

Balenciaga’s mother used to work here as a seamstress, bringing her youngest child along with her as, presumably, childcare options dried up.

Thus, the young Cristobal, born here in 1895, watched his mother day and night, needle in, needle out.

The museum guide tells us that on one occasion, either by accident or deliberate design, a situation arose whereby Cristobal had the chance to create a dress for the marchioness.

Like Cinderella and the shoe: it fit, it was perfect, it was beautiful.

Abigail King of Inside the Travel Lab at the Balenciaga Museum

Balenciaga: A Fashion Superstar

And so, Marchioness de Casa Torres became his mentor, sent him to Madrid for formal training and the rest, as they so often say, was history.

By the end of his life, Balenciaga had designed and created clothes from everyone from the Queen of Belgium to Jackie Kennedy, overseen historic events such as the Spanish Civil War and World War and even the arrival of the high-waisted babydoll dress.

The latter, of course, didn’t just arrive in his time: he created it in his time.

And you can see it all (well, 1600 or pieces or so,) with just a short drive along the coast from San Sebastian.

And to read a more fashion-worthy appraisal of the museum, from an expert, check out Vogue’s piece on the Balenciaga Museum.

*And just before anyone accuses me of describing 27 years in jail as an easy route through life, in this context and this alone it is interesting to note that Mandela was born the eldest son of a tribal chieftain. Presumably he grew up in a position of leadership and authority or saw others around him treat his father that way. This in absolutely no way diminishes my respect for his achievements and awe at what he managed to do. It’s just me trying to think, to explore, to experiment with what influences each of us as we go through life, and from where people can draw their strength and their skills. So that we can do our best to do the same.

Disclosure – although I’ve visited San Sebastian before, this latest trip came about through a partnership between iAmbassador and San Sebastian Tourism to raise awareness of the fact that San Seb will be one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2016. As ever, all musings about Balenciaga, success and fashion (apologies!) are mine.


About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.