The Victoria & Albert Museum in London's South Kensington is playing host to a strikingly beautiful homage to the late yet great, Balenciaga, in an exhibition running from now until 18th February 2018. The intriguing composition of the curation is the split level design; the ground floor celebrates the history of Balenciaga's craft and clients whilst the first floor explores his great influence on later generation designers. I loved the exhibition and spent a great deal of time taking in the details and thought the contrast of history and influence was extremely powerful. With over 100 garments on display, many of which have not been on public display until now, it feels rich and special. Additional features including sketches, video footage, fabric samples and patterns give it a soul and curator's words guide with wisdom and intrigue.
So let me tell you a bit about my visit to the V&A and what I learned about one of the great masters of style.
The Making of a Master
Cristobal Balenciaga hailed from the Basque region of Northern Spain and at the tender age of 12, moved to the neighbouring fashion hotspot, San Sebastian to undergo his fashion apprenticeship, inspired by his seamstress mother. The vastness of his training which uniquely encompassed all disciplines (design, cutting, tailoring and dressmaking) enabled him to launch his own fashion house just ten years later in 1917. Within a short period he became known as 'The Master' amongst his contemporaries and honed the art of sculpting, manipulating and embellishing textiles, creating new silhouettes and turning the pretty fashions of the time on their head. Following the political turmoil experienced in his home country at the time, Balenciaga made the decision to move to Paris, opening his couture house in 1937 and establishing himself as one of the most important influencers on fashion of all time, still heavily influenced by his Spanish roots. A curious example of this was his 'bullfighter jacket'. Balenciaga was believed to dislike bull fighting yet he was influenced by the sport's costume, in particular the mandator's chaquetilla, seen below but redesigned for women to be worn over an evening dress.
The Art of Balenciaga
Referred to by some as the 'Picasso' of fashion, the way that Balenciaga approached his design was very pure to the characteristics of couture. He was believed in letting 'the fabric decide' what form it would take and then approached the construction in a way so beautifully ugly and uniquely fresh it captivated his couture clientele. The famous 'Envelope Dress' (above) is a wonderful example of this architectural approach to dressing he so readily employed. He was keen to depart his designs away from the body conscious femininity and innovate new silhouettes. The conical shape of the 'Envelope Dress' for example, dictates the way the wearer must walk, allowing only small, lady-like steps amongst a deceiving wrath of cloth.
His training in tailoring set extremely high standards for his workrooms and he insisted on absolute perfection. His obsession with sleeves was just an example of that as he believed that they were crucial to balancing the perfect fit. He loved the way that manipulation of the sleeve, including latern shapes shown beautifully on the dress above, could radically change the finish of a garment.
Innovation often came in the form of simplicity.
New textiles, including silk gazar, allowed the fabric to hold it's own without the need for reinforcing or construction, making them favourites of Balenciaga. The stiffness of the gazar allowed lots of new construction techniques to blossom including an evening dress whose main form stood away from the body, only attaching by two small straps.
By his later years, Balenciaga had become somewhat of a master of cloth, his knowledge of which inspired the most simplistic yet captivating of designs. The evening dress shown in the image above is a fine example of that. Cut from a single piece of cloth, seamed only at the centre back and with small weights inserted at the front, it typifies his simplistic and architectural approach to design, made only possible by his competence and experience. The coordinating cape is assiduously pieced at the neck to warrant the soft lines whilst having the ability to stand away from the form.
For Balenciaga, Paris was full of 'Trimmings of Luxe' - a plethora of feathers buttons, flowers and embellishing techniques to provide extra dimension to his designs. The pink and cream coat above has a stunning gradient of colour created by building up layers of beading against a dip type effect with white pearls on top and a finish of Swarovski crystals.
Feathers were another great favourite of the designer's. He applauded their 'weightless volume' and used them to create animation and new forms of shaping. He experimented with applying them in the opposite direction from their natural fall, encouraging volume and movement and used tip-dying to give extra dimension.
Balenciaga the Influencer
After experiencing the wonder and intricacy of Balenciaga's work on the ground level, the exhibition continues upstairs and cites his influence on modern design. Video installations play interviews with designers including Molly Goddard and Gareth Pugh, which show that his influence waterfalls way beyond the legacy of his namesake brand (still thriving today under Gucci Group ownership and headed by Demna Gvasalia as Creative Director).
The floor is divided by his key areas of influence; minimalism, shape & volume, new materials and perfectionism. The majority of the pieces shown are work of modern designers' ready to wear collections (not haute couture) but their interpretation of Balenciaga elevates their collections in the artistry of their form. As early as the 1970s Balenciaga's innovation rippled through the collection of designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo for Commes de Garcon who's work started a moment of 'ma' in Japan, meaning volume around the body. The Triangular Trapeze shapes of 1950as Balenciaga is translated into a modern realm by British designer, Molly Goddard in her use of this silhouette made from tulle and applying volume through smocking and pleating.
I enjoyed visiting this exhibition immensely and would highly recommend it to anyone with the faintest interest in fashion, art or modern history. The V&A is also one of London's most beautiful sights with amazing permanent installations to enjoy as well as a lovely outside area for when it's a warm day and you need to enjoy a carrot cake in the sun!