Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga was famously elusive. He only gave one interview his entire career – to The Times in 1971, three years after closing his fashion house, and one year before his death. He also banned press from the first showings of his collections in 1965.
It’s a mean feat then that the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is launching a forensically in-depth exhibition about the designer – the first in the UK – which spans the 1950s and 60s, Balenciaga’s most avant-garde and revolutionary years. The exhibition comes 100 years after the designer opened his first fashion house in San Sebastián and 80 years after he launched his Paris salon. It’s a centenary year being explored in that city too – ‘Balenciaga: L’Oeuvre au Noir’ opened in March at the Musée Bourdelle, which focuses solely on the designer’s use of black.
Balenciaga is credited with a host of revolutionary silhouettes, including the babydoll and sack dress shapes which caused consternation in the late fifties, but later became analogous to sixties fashion. Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia – who took the creative helm of Balenciaga in October 2015 – presented a series of archive dresses, some Amphora line, puffball or with a balloon hem, as part of his A/W 2017 women’s collection. They highlight the signatures of a designer who – contrary to his counterpart M Dior (synonymous with the ‘Bar’ silhouette) – is renowned for an experimental approach to the female form.
Cristóbal Balenciaga in his studio at Avenue Marceau in Paris, late 1950s. Photography: Cecil Beaton. © Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
We’re known sticklers for attention to detail, and ‘Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’ is an exhibition so in depth that it features X-ray images of garments, created with the artist Nick Veasey. These scans uncover the unusual and intricate structures in Balenciaga’s designs. ‘We had a mobile X-ray studio, which was parked outside the archives,’ explains curator Cassie Davies-Strodder. ‘It was great to be able to illustrate those things that are hidden. In a lot of Balenciaga’s early dresses you find cork structuring. We also found a dress cut from a single piece of fabric, which in terms of cutting is unreal. It also has two weights concealed inside the hem.’
Spanning two galleries at the V&A, the exhibition opens with Balenciaga’s couture salons, and his workrooms. Materials used as part of the exhibition design reflect these private and public worlds – utilitarian white polycarbonate formed the backdrop to the designer’s atelier. Balenciaga’s range of extravagant couture clients, like Mona von Bismarck, Pauline de Rothschild and Elizabeth Parke Firestone, is framed by rich wood.
Upstairs, the ‘Legacy’ section explores the influence of Balenciaga’s aesthetic on over 30 designers over the last 50 years. The exhibition considers the impact of his cutting techniques on the work of Issey Miyake; his use of ‘intellectual’ floral embellishment on Hubert de Givenchy; the impact of the babydoll silhouette on contemporary London-designer Molly Goddard, and his minimalist approach to haute-couture on Calvin Klein, Céline’s Phoebe Philo, and the late André Courrèges – a former apprentice. ‘Balenciaga brought a simplicity to couture,’ Strodder explains. ‘He allowed for garments to be very beautifully made, without having to drape them in luxury materials.’
X-ray ‘La Tulipe’ evening dress, gazar, Balenciaga for EISA, Spain, 1965. Photography: Nick Veasey
Alongside a host of pieces by designers including JW Anderson, Hussein Chalayan, Yohji Yamamoto and Erdem, the exhibition also features new acquisitions by Rick Owens and Comme des Garçons. We went behind the scenes of Rei Kawakubo’s Met Fifth Avenue show in our June issue (W*219), and the Japanese designer’s exploration and obscuration of the female form, study of black and refusal to court the press bears many parallels to Balenciaga.
The exhibition also contains pieces by Nicolas Ghesquière, creative director of Balenciaga from 1997-2012, and current designs by Gvasalia. An archive skirt suit, with a fishtail drape attached unusually to the back of the jacket instead of the skirt, sits next to a wool and silk reinterpretation of the two-piece in Gvasalia’s debut collection for the house.
‘We felt it was important for half of the exhibition to look at Balenciaga’s legacy,’ Strodder says. ‘I met Hubert de Givenchy last year, who trained with Cristóbal. He said he still has Balenciaga’s voice inside his head.’