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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 20th century, Spanish born designer Cristóbal 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, opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 27 May, 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 fashion and textiles at the V&A. “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 1950s tradition and 1960s modernity,” says milliner Stephen Jones, who was inspired by Balenciaga for his graduate collection at Saint 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.”

Although Balenciaga 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 the 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 press come to his first shows, which is a bold move for a designer.”

Balenciaga is the 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,

Film footage of Balenciaga’s shows featured in the exhibition, reveals the extent to which the presentation of fashion has changed. Guests are seen walking in and out at their leisure, with collections shown twice a day over two weeks. The ambience is highly stylised with models appearing notoriously unfriendly. This was under the instructions of Balenciaga, who believed smiling to be vulgar.

“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.”

Cristóbal 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 13-years-old he made a suit for the Marquesa de Casa Torres, who would go on to become a patron and client. Encouraged by the Marquesa he opened his own establishment, called Eisa in San Sebastián, a chic Spanish resort, and two decades later his fashion house at 10 Avenue George V, Paris. From his first collection Balenciaga was a hit, not only with the press, but also with private clients and key department stores in America such as Bloomingdale’s, Henri Bendel 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 Velázquez, Goya, Zurbarán 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 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 to nurture a burgeoning list of private clients that included Pauline de Rothschild, Jackie Kennedy, Gloria Guinness, The Duchess of Windsor and film stars such as Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner, whose clothes will also feature in the show.

“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 1950s black silk taffeta balloon-hem dress for the show. “They were women, and clothes, of presence. All achieved through genius cut and an assured choice of fabric.” Due to the way he constructed his dresses and suits to follow the shape of a woman’s body, the women who wore Balenciaga’s designs, no matter how simple or startling, all attested how comfortable and easy his clothes were to wear.

To reveal the complex cutting of Balenciaga’s understated designs, the exhibition uses X-ray photography to uncover seaming and the hidden weights sewn inside to ensure that it draped in a certain way. Students at LFC remade toiles (calico prototypes) of key Balenciaga designs, including a tour de force one seam dress shaped with darts and tucks from a single piece of fabric.

The exhibition explores how Balenciaga has influenced contemporary designers, from those who worked for him including André Courrèges, Emanuel Ungaro, Oscar de la Renta and Paco Rabanne, to designers working today who cite him as an inspiration, such as J.W. Anderson, Phoebe Philo at Céline, Simone Rocha, Nicolas Ghesquière (one time creative director at Balenciaga), Iris van Herpen, Comme des Garçons and Erdem. A testament to the enduring legacy and creative vision of Balenciaga. “It’s like a pebble being dropped into water,” says Davies-Strodder, “the ripple effect down the decades”.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, will exhibit at the V&A Museum, London, from 27 May 2017 to 18 February 2018.

For more visit www.balenciaga.com

Image Credits:
Image 01. Photo by Henry Clarke / Condé Nast via Getty Images.
Image 02. Photo courtesy of Art + Commerce / Raven & Snow.
Image 03. Silk Taffeta Evening Dress, Designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1954 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 
Image 04. Evening Dress, Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1965—1966 Poult V Museum no. T.22—1974 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 
Image 05. Photo by Bettmann / Getty Images.
Image 06. Photo by Francois Pages / Paris Match via Getty Images.

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