The V&A have partnered with American Express to create the first ever UK exhibition exploring Cristobal Balenciaga’s controversial designs and the foundation that he laid for contemporary designers in the 20th and 21st centuries. It also marks the centenary of his first fashion house, as well as the 80th anniversary of his Paris fashion house.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion has been carefully curated, with a strong focus on the 1950s and 1960s as this is when he introduced the most radical shapes. 70% of the display is already part of the V&A archive, with the other 30% being made up of loans from the likes of the Chicago History Museum and the Balenciaga Museum itself. The exhibition highlights Balenciaga’s wider influence to the present day, and draws attention to small details that are otherwise unnoticeable to the naked eye. This is showcased through their collaboration with artist Nick Veasey, in which they created x-ray images of the garments. One of the dresses was even displayed inside-out to allow a closer look at the perfect construction of Balenciaga’s pieces.
Cristobal Balenciaga was born in northern Spain in 1895, where he learnt all stages of the making process through working with his seamstress mother and then going on to formally train in tailoring. He opened his first fashion house in 1917, with his Spanish heritage informing his designs. He later went on to establish a couture house in Paris in 1937. Some of Balenciaga’s key designs during his career were ‘the unsexy sack’, ‘the envelope dress’ and ‘the balloon hem’. These all received sceptical reviews, but ended up paving the way for more contemporary designers to evolve these key shapes. He eliminated the waist completely, which was a very controversial move at the time.
He drew much of his inspiration from non-Western designs, such as the Japanese kimono or the Indian Sari, and also from his own religious background as a devout Catholic. Due to his craftsman background, Balenciaga preferred to make rather than to draw, allowing him to be a lot more experimental with drape and volume. The exhibition also looks at the variety of clients that he had, from his haute couture collection, to his Spanish cheaper alternative Eisa, and then down to department stores licensing his designs.
One of the main purposes of this exhibition is to showcase the legacy that Balenciaga has left behind and the impact that it has had on designers to the present day. His minimalism towards the end of his career inspired the likes of Yohji Yamamoto, Calvin Klein and Rick Owens. This meant fewer seams, minimal decoration, and a simplified aesthetic. Balenciaga was also a true craftsman, and despite the growing pace of the fashion industry, some designers still try to maintain that same level of honesty and perfectionism. Hubert de Givenchy, Dries van Noten, Erdem and Yves Saint Laurent are to name a few of those with great attention to detail. There is also the obvious inspiration towards shape and volume, with Balenciaga’s unusual volumes that stood away from the body, framing the figure rather than restricting it. Rei Kawakubo, Nicholas Ghesquiere and Hussein Chalayan have all reinterpreted these obscure shapes.
His innovative pattern-cutting has influenced the likes of Issey Miyake and Alexander McQueen with how they creat their garments and experiment with varying fits. Lastly, Balenciaga’s understanding of textiles and how they behaved meant that he could experiment with a number of different materials. He opened the doors for greater experimentation to individuals such as Paco Rabanne, Simone Rocha and Iris van Herpen. Cristobal Balenciaga is a true icon as he has quite literally shaped the way that designers approach the creative process, and challenged them to experiment with non-traditional styles. This exhibition definitely highlights how much of an impact he had and deconstructs his craft to the most minor details.
The exhibition opens on 27th May 2017. You can purchase tickets here.