When Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his fashion house in 1968, the socialite Mona von Bismarck was devastated. “Mona didn’t come out of her room for three days,” recalled Diana Vreeland in D.V ., her memoir. “It was the end of a certain part of her life.” Bismarck’s reaction was eccentric, yes, but the fabled episode neatly sums up the strength of feeling in fashion circles towards this quiet giant of haute couture.
Despite shunning all publicity, choosing “monsters” as his models, and shocking the clients and press with provocative silhouettes, the enigmatic Balenciaga was and continues to be revered as the designer’s designer. Cecil Beaton described him as “fashion’s Picasso”.
A survey of the Spanish fashion designer’s career at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum opens Saturday. The exhibition is a visual feast for fashion nerds. Uncompromising and exacting, graceful and awkward, Balenciaga’s creations are poised on a line where fashion turns into something else.
The striking modernity of his work is evident from the start. The first thing visitors encounter is a 1961 chartreuse silk gazar dress-cape. Evocative of an elegant caterpillar, it could easily be mistaken for Comme des Garçons. “The dress is a fantastic distillation of his ideas and it shows his abstraction of the body—it’s strikingly modern,” observed Cassie Davies-Strodder, the exhibition’s curator.
Born in a small fishing village in the Basque region of Spain in 1895, Balenciaga began training as a tailor in Madrid at age 12. He established a successful career as a designer in Spain and in 1937 he moved his business to Paris. The V&A exhibition focuses on the designer’s work in the 1950s and 1960s. “These decades mark a critical point in Balenciaga’s career where he is significantly departing from what other people are doing,” said Davies-Strodder. The shapely simplicity of Balenciaga’s garments is deceptive, but the exhibition shows “exploded” versions of garments created by X-ray artist Nick Veasey. The images reveal a level of technical mastery imperceptible to the naked eye.
Balenciaga’s training as a tailor meant he was a hands-on worker and ingenious pattern-cutter, but it is the pure originality of his designs that has ensured his legacy. The sack, the babydoll and the balloon dress were just a few of his innovations. “These were actually very shocking at the time because they completely eliminate the waist,” said Davies-Strodder. “They are from a time when Dior’s New Look was still dominating the fashion landscape, so people thought they were revolting.”
On paper the designer and Balenciaga’s current creative director, Demna Gvasalia, are poles apart. The former was a high society darling; the latter is a streetwise provocateur. But the parallels between the two men in the exhibition are hard to ignore. “I think they have a similar attitude to the fashion system and the press, and aren’t afraid to challenge norms,” said Davies-Strodder. “They also have a similar approach to the body. Demna approaches the body in 360-degree way… he has that technical confidence in cutting and assembling that you see in Balenciaga’s work.”
And like Gvasalia, Balenciaga shocked the Paris salons of the 1950s with his choice of unconventional models, often of diverse ages, shapes and sizes. “The fashion press called them monsters,” said Davies-Strodder. “He taught them to walk in this really haughty way so they didn’t make eye contact and stomped down the catwalk.”
Balenciaga’s knack for anticipating—and shaping—the zeitgeist is made plain in the final section of the exhibition. His influence is seen in garments by protégés Oscar de la Renta and Paco Rabanne right through to present-day trailblazers like JW Anderson, Molly Goddard and, of course, Gvasalia.
“The reverence contemporary designers have for Balenciaga is like no one else,” said Davies-Strodder. “He had such a clear vision that he elevated dressmaking to the realm of art.”
‘Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’ is on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum from May 27, 2017 until February 18, 2018; Vam.ac.uk/balenciaga