Since this exhibition launched at the V&A Museum in London earlier this year, we’ve been longing to see some of Cristobal Balenciaga’s iconic designs in the flesh. And when we finally got a chance to pop in and look around, it did not disappoint
Cristobal Balenciaga came from a small town in Spain, where his mother (a seamstress) would work while he watched, fascinated. He started working under a tailor at the young age of twelve, and it wasn’t long before he left his small hometown for formal training in tailoring. He opened his first boutique at the age of 24, which was so successful it expanded to Barcelona and Madrid. Once the Spanish Civil War forced him out, he moved his work to Paris and opened a couture house there. This was in 1937, and it catapulted him to success. People literally risked their lives during WWII travelling to see and buy his creations. Post-war, the true genius of his designs became obvious. The tunic dress, the babydoll dress, the cocoon coat, the balloon skirt: every silhouette he created was different from the last. He closed his house in 1968 and passed away four short years later. His legacy goes far beyond his living years. Coco Chanel called him ‘the only couturier in the truest sense of the word’ and Christian Dior called him ‘the master of us all’. His house remained closed until 1986 until it was bought by Jaques Bogart and the house started making magic once again. Everyone has worn the house’s designs: from Jackie Kennedy and Mona von Bismarck to Angelina Jolie and Chloe Sevigny. Needless today, there’s a wealth of beauty and intellect of which to curate an exhibition around.
The Balenciaga Exhibition
The lower floor of the exhibition is dedicated to Cristobal’s time at the house between the 50s and 70s, and it’s hard to believe how long ago some of the designs were created. Many of the pieces look futuristic and daring even now, considerable amounts of time since they initially made their debut. The avant garde silhouettes, bold colours and intricate details were well ahead of their time. And it’s not just the designs that were modern: Cristobal was well known for having models of all shapes, sizes and colours on his catwalks, something few fashions houses manage even today.
As you walk around the vintage exhibition, it’s not just the aesthetics that fascinate: it’s the construction behind the garments too. X-Rays of Balenciaga’s designs reveal the intricate and unique internal scaffolding giving each garment it’s shape. Garments are displayed inside out on the mannequins and there are illustrations to accompany some of the pieces, showing the journey from an idea to a fully realised piece of art.
The title ‘Shaping Fashion’ couldn’t be more apt: the architecture of Balenciaga’s clothes are like nothing you’ve ever seen. In contrast to Chanel’s perfectly tailored suits and Dior’s ‘new look’, the shapes at Balenciaga completely disregard the ‘natural’ shape of the body. Instead of moulding around a women’s curves as most women’s clothes do; Balenciaga reconstructs them entirely. Waists are eliminated, the model is swathed in fabric that somehow doesn’t drown her, power shoulders are taken to extremes and the body is simultaneously revealed and disguised.
Continue through the exhibition and Cristobal’s legacy is further cemented. This iconic exhibition also showcases different designers who have each been informed by Balenciaga in their own way. Through minimalism, shape and volume, perfectionism, pattern cutting and new materials; almost every contemporary designer you can think of has been influenced by Cristobal Balenciaga. In a short interview projected onto the wall, Molly Goddard, Gareth Pugh and Josep Font talk about the ways they have taken inspiration from the designer and his house. As you walk further through the exhibition, it almost becomes overwhelming trying to process the unprecedented influence of one man on the entire fashion world.
The ‘Envelope’ Dress, famously modelled by Alberta Tiburzi was one of my personal highlights of the exhibition. Completely iconic and undeniably elegant, the piece is the first in a display case entirely filled with black garments. Striking because of the darkness, but fascinating because every single piece in the row was completely different.
There’s an embroidered cream coat which has the most ridiculously huge cuffs made from ostrich feathers. The mannequin wears silk gloves and the entire look is the epitome of glamour to me: outrageous, expensive and beautiful.
X-Rays of the pieces are hung beside them in the display cabinets, providing an insight into the genius architectural work at play in some of the more extravagant gowns. It makes the garments comparable to icebergs: you appreciate the beauty on top knowing the immense amount of work that goes on beneath the surface. The exhibition isn’t just about celebrating beauty, it’s about recognising the dexterity and skill that goes into high fashion.
Upstairs there’s a pink Comme des Garcons coat with the largest sleeves known to fashion kind. The ruffles engulf the mannequin wearing the iconic AW16 piece from Rei Kawakubo. It’s a garment which shows the lasting impression that Cristobal Balenciaga continues to have on the fashion world.