Hubert de Givenchy once pronounced of his mentor, “I don’t even think the Bible has taught me as much as Balenciaga.” The father of the “sack dress” and the baby doll, there is no doubt that designers today owe a lot of their inspiration to Cristóbal Balenciaga. To mark the 100th anniversary of the opening of his first fashion house, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is showcasing a retrospective entitled Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion.
The V&A is no stranger to retrospectives—the most famous to date is Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which opened to widespread acclaim in 2015. Like Savage Beauty, the exhibition’s layout and structure attempts to follow the personality and enigma that the designer is most associated with. As a result, unlike Savage Beauty, it is milder, and less emotive— weightless feather dresses, glamourous opera gowns and evening dresses are arranged to resemble the designer’s atelier, and housed in clear cases with minimalistic decorative design.
The exhibition can be found in the Fashion gallery of the V&A, and spans two floors. The first floor; a study of Balenciaga, his story and designs, and the making of those designs, and the second; an ode to the pillar of 20th century Modernism through his influence on current designers.
As legend will have it with the great couture houses of the 20th century, Balenciaga was born of Basque peasant stock. He opened his first boutique in San Sebastian, Spain in 1919, and by the end of his life, would have gone on to design dresses and wardrobes for the likes of Pauline de Rothschild, Ava Gardner, and the Spanish royals. As one of the few couturiers in fashion history who would use his hands to participate in all aspects of the dress making, Coco Chanel declared him “a couturier in the truest sense of the word.” His talent, vision, and as a result his fame, was unparalleled.
Balenciaga is well known for his intricate and unique internal construction, but it is difficult to communicate to an audience so used to fast fashion and throwaway models the effort that goes into the designs. The curator, Cassie Davies-Strodder and her team, have done a commendable job of making the couture exhibits more personal and understandable to modern audiences. One of the ways it does so is by deconstructing the dress so that the “X-ray,” or the internal construction of the dress is put on display next to a mannequin wearing the design. A hallmark of many of his dress designs included less design in the front but more in the back, and the exhibition attempts to showcase that by including rotating mannequins with portraits of the dress on salon models and a sample of the fabric used.
The appeal to the millennial generation is also apparent with the interactive ability built into this exhibition—for instance, a highlight is the ability to take a picture with two sample mock ups of a 1956 piece, which can be either worn as an evening skirt or cape, against a mock up 1950s salon wall.
Finally, to give a better sense of the traditional relationship between the couturier and the women he dressed, samples and pieces from some of his famous client’s wardrobes are put on display. Viewers are allowed into a peek into the collections of the likes of Countess Mona Bismarck’s (who’s gardening shorts were also tailored by the house) collection of silk top and trousers in various colours, which are displayed in contrast with the glamorous evening gowns donned by American socialite Elizabeth Firestone.
The upstairs showcases some of Balenciaga’s influence to the modern designer. Lined with quotes about the couturier from his colleagues and peers in fashion, it details the various trademarks and visions that have lent themselves to the creative vision and direction of modern day designers for Comme des Garçons, Céline, Oscar de la Renta, and Courrèges. After the atelier was closed in 1968, it was ironically revived as a prêt-à-porter brand in 1986, which, had the designer still been alive, he may have viewed as an abomination. Hubert de Givenchy, Balenciaga’s famously devout disciple, was after all able to make a name for himself because of Balenciaga’s increasing distaste with the rise of ready-to-wear; his first clients were Balenciaga’s distraught clients who viewed the shuttering of the atelier as the end of an era.
As a designer, he was rarely sighted and a mystery to those outside his world. However, there is no doubt that the enduring genius of Balenciaga can still be seen in modern fashion. For instance, Phoebe Philo, in her collections for Céline, can be seen to emulate the designer through the simple tunics and silhouettes alongside the ample volume allowed through capes and aprons. Rei Kawakubo (she and Comme des Garçons were recently celebrated by the New York Metropolitan Museum this past May) was famously inspired by the sculptural yet shapeless coats and outerwear in her Body-Meets-Dress collection of 1999.
The exhibition does a thorough job of detailing the work, the thought process and the legacy Balenciaga created for the modern woman’s wardrobe. Like his contemporaries—Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and Christian Dior—he dressed and created pieces distinctively tailored to his own style and taste. He saved women from the restrictive waists of Christian Dior’s “New Look,” but Dior still proclaimed him as “the master of us all.” So widespread and collective was his genius that on his death, Women’s Wear Daily declared that “The King is dead.” Indeed, one is a King and a Master in the truest sense of the word when, across the Atlantic, celebrations of the innovations in modern female fashion can be inspired by the same person: Cristóbal Balenciaga.
With many thanks to respective parties for press materialsReferences
Berrington, K. (2017). V&A To Stage Balenciaga Retrospective. [online] British Vogue. Available at: http://www.vogue.co.uk/article/balenciaga-shaping-fashion-exhibition-comes-to-the-va [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].
Cartner-Morley, J. (2017). V&A makes case for the rebellious beauty of Balenciaga. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2017/may/19/va-makes-case-for-the-rebellious-beauty-of-balenciaga [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].
Cooke, R. (2017). Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion review – nothing to be said but ‘wow’. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2017/may/28/balenciaga-shaping-fashion-review-v-and-a [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].
Emily Cronin (2017). Balenciaga at the V&A: 7 reasons you should see the fashion exhibition of the year. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/style/balenciaga-va-7-reasons-should-see-fashion-exhibition-year/ [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].
Jackson, D. and Rakhit, B. (2017). A first look at the Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition at the V&A Museum. [online] Evening Standard. Available at: http://www.standard.co.uk/fashion/news/a-first-look-at-the-balenciaga-shaping-fashion-exhibition-at-the-va-museum-a3548031.html [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].
Judah, H. (2017). Design nerds are in for a treat – Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, V&A, review. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/design-nerds-treat-balenciaga-shaping-fashion-va-review/ [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].
Victoria and Albert Museum. (2017). V&A · About the Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition. [online] Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/about-balenciaga-shaping-fashion [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].
Victoria and Albert Museum. (2017). V&A · Introducing Cristóbal Balenciaga. [online] Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/introducing-cristobal-balenciaga [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].
Victoria and Albert Museum. (2017). V&A · X-raying Balenciaga. [online] Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/x-raying-balenciaga [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].