PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2006, 12:00am

An insider's guide to your favourite fashion brands

How did it start? Cristobal Balenciaga was born in a small fishing village in Spain in 1895. He was taught by his seamstress mother how to make clothes. At 13, he was singled out by the Marquesa de Casa Torres, a prominent member of high society, who sent him to Madrid for proper training, later becoming his patron and client.

In 1919, Balenciaga opened his first salon, in San Sebastian, followed in 1933 by two more shops, in Madrid and Barcelona. During this time, his designs attracted a strong following among Spanish royalty and aristocracy.

The Spanish civil war forced him to close his boutiques and he moved to Paris, joining couturiers such as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. In August 1937, he showed his first haute couture catwalk collection, inspired by the Spanish Renaissance. Within a year he was hailed as fashion's newest talent and dubbed the master of construction.

In 1939, he focused on the cut of the sleeve and square yoke. This was by the little black dress in 1940, kimono-sleeve coats in 1946, and balloon dresses and collarless coats in 1949. In 1953, he transformed the silhouette, eliminating the waist. In 1968, after presenting his final collection, he retired to Spain. He died in 1972.

From then until the mid-90s, Balenciaga went into fragrances and licensing. But the Paris- based owners relaunched the fashion side of the brand and appointed Melchior Thimister as head designer in 1992.

Who's behind it now?

French designer Nicolas Ghesquiere worked with the brand's licensing team from 1995 and was appointed creative director in 1997. His first collection was for the spring/summer 1998 season. It went unnoticed by the fashion press. But by 2000, he had redefined the image of the house with his love of silhouettes, pairing high-waisted, skinny pants with a voluminous blouson, or a tightly cut wool jumpsuit with billowing sleeves. He also introduced leather goods, including the popular Lariat motorcycle handbags. In July 2001, the Gucci Group bought the brand.

The look?

The French Revolution inspired the spring/summer 2006 collection, with striped drain- pipe trousers matched with white frilled shirts, high pleated collars and puffed sleeves. Embellishments of pearl pins, lace and baroque embroideries abound. A range of bubble-shaped dresses hark back to Balenciaga's earlier work. For autumn/winter, it draws on Balenciaga's history, moving through his career, including stiff jackets rising slightly above the waist, to simple sheaths and 3-D bubble skirts.

Defining fashion moment:

Its most famous decade was the 1950s, with many new looks, such as the balloon jacket in 1953, the high-waisted, baby doll dress, the draped cocoon coat and the balloon skirt. Balenciaga was fanatically precise about sleeves, which he likened to sculpture.

Who wears it?

Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung Man-yuk is a big fan, as is Gwyneth Paltrow, who wore a Balenciaga maternity dress at the Golden Globes this year. Other fans include Nicole Kidman and Kate Moss.

What else can I buy?

In 2004, the brand introduced shoes and the Balenciaga.Edition collection - inspired by haute couture pieces from the archive. There are also basics including knits, pants and silks.

Where can I buy it?

There is a store at G/F, Entertainment Building, Queen's Road Central, tel: 3428 8086.