I am THRILLED to have contributed to the latest issue of NEUE LUXURY/NEUE FASHION writing about the upcoming Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition, that opens at the Victoria & Albert Museum on May 27th 2017. It was a pleasure to meet curator Cassie Davies-Strodder to discuss the life and influence of Cristobal Balenciaga. An edited version of my text is reproduced below.
BALENCIAGA: SHAPING FASHION
Described by legendary fashion photographer Cecil Beaton as ‘fashion’s Picasso’ and heralded as one of the most innovative and influential fashion designers of the twentieth century, Spanish born designer Cristobal Balenciaga challenged convention with his extraordinary pattern cutting and audacious silhouettes, yet he remains surrounded by a sense of mystery. However, a new exhibition Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, that opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, May 27th, takes a forensic approach to celebrate his legacy.
“The V&A has the most incredible collection of Balenciaga designs and we are indebted to Cecil Beaton for that,” says Cassie Davies-Strodder, curator of the new exhibition. “2017 marks two momentous anniversaries – 1917, when Balenciaga launched his first dressmaking establishment and 1937, when he opened his eponymous fashion house in Paris – so we thought it was the right time. And it’s just a really good opportunity to get out lots of pieces that people have never seen before.”
“Balenciaga is the purest designer who achieved perfect balance: bridging the worlds of 1950’s tradition and 1960’s modernity,” says milliner Stephen Jones, who was inspired by Balenciaga for his graduate collection at St Martin’s School of Art (now Central Saint Martins), in 1979. “I loved his use of extravagant, decorative hats with apparently simple clothes. Also, no one else I knew was remotely interested in him or even knew who he was.”
Indeed, although Balanciaga is much revered by the fashion cognoscenti, he is a less familiar name with the public, especially compared to Coco Chanel or Christian Dior.
“Balenciaga is a real designers’ designer but he is shrouded in anonymity that definitely had to do with the way he shunned the press and publicity and didn’t talk in soundbites,“ says Davies-Strodder. “From 1956-67 he wouldn’t even let the press come to his first shows, which is a bold move for a designer.”
Film footage of Balenciaga’s shows features in the exhibition and reveals how much the presentation of fashion has changed. Guests are seen walking in and out because collections were shown twice a day over two weeks. The ambience is highly stylised as models appear so unfriendly looking. This under the instructions of Balenciaga, who thought smiling to be vulgar.
“Also, Balenciaga did not unveil a brand new look each season, he was more about a gradual evolution of an idea, which isn’t as press friendly. There will be a catwalk in the exhibition showing the evolution of his silhouettes,” continues Davies-Strodder. “It starts with the balloon-hem dress then the semi-fit and baby doll and ends with the iconic four-point envelope dress, which shows his move into more abstract ideas.”
Cristobal Balenciaga was born in 1895 in the fishing village of Guetaria in the Basque region of Spain. Although from a modest background he was obsessed with clothes and fashion folklore has it that at thirteen years old he made a suit for the Marquesa de Casa Torres, who became a patron and client. Encouraged by the Marquesa he opened his own establishment, called Eisa in San Sebastian, a chic Spanish resort and two decades later his fashion house at 10 Avenue Georges V, Paris. From his first collection Balenciaga was a hit, not only with press but also personal clients and key department stores in America – Bloomingdales, Bendel’s and Saks.
Balenciaga’s designs drew heavily upon his heritage. His vision veering between extremes: the flamboyance of flamenco dancers, ostentatious costumes of toreadors, royal Infantas and decorative statues of the Madonna to the dramatic, pared-down purity of the religious paintings of Velazquez, Goya, Zurbaran and El Greco. His more austere attitude mirrored the mood of monastic calm that prevailed in his fashion house and all-white studio.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion explores these contradictions, showcasing different elements of his exacting making process, including his use of materials, pattern cutting, dressmaking, embroidery, embellishment and millinery. The show also explores the client experience. Fiercely independent, Balenciaga eschewed mass-production preferring instead a burgeoning list of private clients including Pauline de Rothschild, Jackie Kennedy, Gloria Guinness and The Duchess of Windsor and film stars such as Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner, whose clothes will feature in the display. Clients generated publicity when wearing his designs at parties and society events as well as day-to-day.
“Balenciaga’s seemingly unassuming clothes, none of which shout out with fancy ornamentation and decoration, matched the wearers,” says Rosemary Harden, curator of the Fashion Museum, Bath, who has loaned an iconic black silk taffeta balloon-hem dress from 1950 for the show. “They were women, and clothes, of presence. All achieved through genius cut and an assured choice of fabric. Put them on and they became walking sculptures.”
Indeed, the women who wore Balenciaga’s designs, no matter how simple or startling, all attested how comfortable and easy his clothes were to wear, due to the way he constructed his dresses and suits to follow the shape of a woman’s body, so they never felt trapped or confined.
To reveal the complex cutting of Balenciaga’s understated designs the exhibition uses X-ray photography to uncover seaming and even hidden weights sewn inside to ensure a dress drape in a certain way. Students at LCF have also remade toiles (calico prototypes) of Balenciaga’s designs including a tour-de-force one seam dress shaped with darts and tucks from a single piece of fabric. Many of the designer’s later more provocative experiments in fashion were inspired by the Japanese kimono.
The exhibition also shows how Balenciaga has influenced contemporary designers, from those who worked for him including Courrèges, Ungaro, Oscar de la Renta and Paco Rabanne to designers working today who cite him as an inspiration such as JW Anderson, Phoebe Philo at Celine, Simone Rocha, Nicolas Ghesquière (one-time creative director at Balenciaga), Iris van Herpen, Comme des Garcons and Erdem, who has visited the V&A archive several times to view Balenciaga pieces.
“It’s like a pebble being dropped into water,” says Davies-Strodder, “the ripple effect down the decades.”
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, V&A Museum, from May 27, 2017 to February 18, 2018.