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Dovima with Sacha, cloche and suit by Balenciaga, Cafe des Deux Magots, Paris, 1955. Photograph by Richard Avedon (c) The Richard Avedon Foundation

‘Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’ at the V&A

27 June 2017 Laura Garmeson

Cristóbal Balenciaga is a fashion designer’s fashion designer. Founding his first fashion house in 1917, the celebrated Spanish couturier has acquired an international reputation for creating voluminous silhouettes and meticulously structured pieces, making him the fashion world's unofficial high priest of couture. A new exhibition at the V&A, ‘Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’, takes a closer look at the lasting legacy of this fashion icon, with a vast array of his creations now on display drawn from the museum’s extensive collection.

Christian Dior called him ‘the master of us all’. Oscar de la Renta claimed he ‘worked like an architect.’ Elsa Schiaparelli described him as ‘the only designer who dares to do what he wants.’ The walls of this new exhibition at the V&A are plastered with similarly laudatory quotes from industry insiders, to the extent that you’d be forgiven for thinking Balenciaga had singlehandedly invented the whole fashion game. Dior’s effusiveness in particular seems to know no bounds, as he likens haute couture to an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga, where ‘we other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.’


Image Credit: Bolero jacket, Cristóbal Balenciaga, EISA, Spain, 1947 © Museo Cristóbal Balenciaga
 
But perhaps we can forgive the whiff of hyperbole, for although Balenciaga may be something of an industry darling, he is still not quite a household name. This may owe something to his chronic aversion to publicity during his lifetime, remaining, as he did, a retiring and reticent figure in spite of the meteoric ascent of his brand. It is bolstered by the fact that Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum is the first ever UK exhibition dedicated to his work, despite it being one hundred years since the opening of his first fashion house in San Sebastian, Spain.


Image Credit: Alberta Tiburzi in 'envelope' dress by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Harper's Bazaar, June 1967 © Hiro 1967
 
Balenciaga himself may be a lesser-known figure in the high-fashion pantheon, but his clothing legacy is inescapable and continues to inform the pieces designed and worn today – not bad for a young boy from a Basque fishing village. The tunic, the sack, the ‘baby doll’, the shift dress – these designs are now sported by women across the world, but their lineage can be traced back to many of Balenciaga’s trailblazing pieces from the 1950s and 1960s. Walking around the hundred-odd garments on display in this exhibition, many of the clothes feel surprisingly modern, reflecting both Balenciaga’s resolutely pioneering vision and the enduring influence he still wields over other designers.


Image Credit: Evening dress, silk taffeta, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1954 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
 
The exhibition is loosely structured around three sections: ‘Front of House’ looks at Balenciaga’s salons, ‘Workrooms’ uncovers what happens behind the scenes, and ‘Balenciaga’s Legacy’ examines the impact he has had on other major fashion brands. There were impressive stars among his glamorous, moneyed clientele, which included Ava Gardner, Gloria Guinness and Mona von Bismarck – one of the world’s wealthiest women at the time, who once bought eighty garments in a single season – and the relationship between couturier and client would often last years. Each couture garment required up to three fittings, but the famously uncompromising Balenciaga would still think nothing of ripping up his work at the last minute and reworking it if the shape wasn’t right.
 
One thing this exhibition does particularly well is to highlight the craftsmanship behind many of these iconic designs. A vibrant red dress, which hugs the torso but billows out into improbable princess-folds below the waist, stands next to an x-ray image revealing canny structuring hoops beneath the silk taffeta skirts, allowing the great swathes of fabric to be arranged in such a way that they filled with air as the wearer walked. ‘Almost air-borne,’ was how Vogue described these balloon dresses at the time. Many of his voluminous shapes were also designed to incorporate his Spanish heritage, with various pieces infused with elements of flamenco, bullfighting, and even traditional Catholic dress.


Image Credit: Cristóbal Balenciaga at work, Paris, 1968. Photograph Henri Cartier-Bresson © Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Photos
 
The upper gallery is dedicated almost entirely to other couturiers and designers who have incorporated touches of Balenciaga into their own work. There are pieces by Azzedine Alaïa, who collects Balenciaga’s work, Hubert de Givenchy, mentored by the Spanish maestro, as well as garments by Alexander McQueen and Issey Miyake, whose designs have often defied symmetry and convention in the innovative tradition of Balenciaga. The sheer range of designers and pieces on this floor can seem sprawling and diffuse, but it does succeed in conveying the extent of the Spanish couturier’s reach. You get a sense of these shapes having left an indelible mark on the design traditions of today, which is no mean feat given the fashion world’s inherent fickleness and ephemerality.
 
Balenciaga famously proclaimed that ‘a woman has no need to be perfect or even beautiful to wear my dresses. The dress will do all that for her.’ One of his models Nicole Parent said of his designs that ‘they didn’t even need a body to be able to speak.’ So much for the well-trodden maxim of it being how you wear it that counts: in Balenciaga’s world – that is, in the court of the couture king – the dress wears you.
 
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, sponsored by American Express, is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 18 February 2018.
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