How do you say ‘Parisian Elegance’ in Spanish? Antonio Cánovas del Castillo

Antonio Cánovas del Castillo. Jacques Rouchon/Roger Viollet. Cordon Press.

After seeing the Balenciaga exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum recently, and due to the hype around the Spanish designer that Paris saw shine, I decided to share with you another great Spanish creator that succeeded in the international fashion mecca. “El prestigio queda, la fama es efímera”, meaning “the prestige is permanent, fame is ephemeral,” is one of the phrases attributed to Cristóbal Balenciaga; and, in this case, applicable Spanish couturier Antonio Cánovas del Castillo who established himself among the big names of couture in The City of Light. We saw one of his in our visit to the Met Museum Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion exhibition, where I remember thinking that his story and creations need to be shared more often, so here it is a snippet.

Maybe you know all about Castillo, or on the contrary his name doesn’t sound familiar; or maybe, if you’re studying the restoration of Spanish Bourbon Monarchy in the 19th Century, you might think I’m talking about its first Prime Minister. You’re not far too off. Seeing his name next to the name “Lanvin,” might give you a hint of who I’m talking about.

Born in Madrid in 1908, grandnephew of the Spanish Prime Minister of the same name, Castillo left for Paris at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, escaping from the republican forces.

In 1951 Paris Match reported with an unusual realism, the crude situation that Castillo went through when he migrated, “with 32 trunks, suitcases and various packages, 26 years old and 18 francs in his pocket”, forced to live a life of what the reporter described as a “Russian migrant existence.” However, his luck changed quickly, and in a few months Castillo was initiated in the fashion world designing jewellery and accessories for Coco Chanel, thanks to the intervention of Misia Sert (famous pianist in Paris). Years later, despite of his differences (or because of them), Chanel affirmed about Castillo: “He has a kind of a latent genious. With him one must approach him as a ferret to make him get out of his burrow. Then it’s marvelous…”

Veruschka, with a design by Castillo for Elizabeth Arden. Franco Rubartelli. Condé Nast Archive

Between 1937 and 1945 he worked for Paquin and Piguet, and even collaborated with Cocteau in his film “The Beauty and the Beast.” This was also the year when Elizabeth Arden convinced him to go to New York, where he became the house designer, and he started working for Broadway productions and the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Dress by Lanvin Castillo 1951, Photograph by Gordon Parks

In 1950 Castillo received a call from the Countess of Polignac, Jean Marie-Blanche (daughter of Jeanne Lanvin) who, following the death of Jeanne Lanvin in 1946, was looking for a head designer to revitalise the salon. His presentation was spectacular, with a collection of white sateen dresses. The success and recognition of his work was such that his name became a part of the brand, including its presence on the gowns’ labels.

Paris, February 1951. Preparing The New Spring-summer of 1951 Lanvin Couture Collection. First collection by Antonio Del Castillo. Willy Rizzo. Getty Images

Lanvin-Castillo, Paris, 1951. Photo by Gordon Parks

He knew how to leave an imprint of his personality on his creations, without ever losing the “Lanvin” style of tailored dresses, full skirts and ankle lengths, and those feminine and defined shapes despite all the volume.

This evening dress marked Lanvin-Castillo, by Antonio Canovas del Castillo and made in 1956 (© Met Museum), both recalls the tiered trimmings and bustled silhouettes of 1880s fashions and embodies the romantic, youthful spirit for which the house was known. The style was captured in a striking photograph by Richard Avedon for Harper’s Bazaar in 1956, (© Harper’s Bazaar) in which model Suzy Parker leans over a pinball machine, forming a sweeping arc of dramatically lit tulle against a dark background.

Dress by Lanvin Castillo photographed by Richard Avedon for Harpers in 1956

Lanvin-Castillo Tag

At Lanvin, Castillo experienced the golden age of his career as a couturier. For 13 years, he mastered collection after collection, gained the respect and love of the most demanding Parisian and international public, situating the name of the house and his own among the big names of haute couture at its peak time. In 1963 Castillo decided to establish his own couture house, only open for four years, with the unconditional support of two of his most faithful clients, Barbara Hutton and Gloria Guiness. During this time, he worked for private clients, theatre and film, which brought him a Tony Award for Best Costume Design for Goldilocks (musical) in 1959 and an Oscar for Best Costume Design for the British film Nicholas and Alexandra in 1971 (shared with Yvonne Blake).

Dress by Lanvin-Castillo, 1957. Henry Clarke. Condé Nast Archive

As a final note, in 1961 Castillo hired  a very young Dominican designer living in Madrid named Óscar de la Renta, but that is another story.