Spanish fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga Eizaguirre (1895-1972) was a man I first heard about when I was very young, growing up in Australia following World War II. His was a name that garnered respect, associated as he was with timeless beauty and by way of contrast, with the fiery temperament of a haughty sensational Spanish dancer.
Passionate, able to design, cut, set and sew a garment from conception to conclusion, Balenciaga opened his first couture house in Donostia-San Sebastian and owned houses in Madrid and Barcelona. He immigrated to Paris with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, setting up shop on the George V Avenue in 1937.
It was from where his style became known by the international set, through such great continental beauties as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. They came and saw him many times, as he put himself on the map of the highest society, especially when he designed the bridal gown for Queen Fabiola of Belgium, catching the eye of many fabulous American society women with the ready necessary, who idolized his creations.
His was an era when the Bullfight was at its height, with society people and Hollywood stars arriving in town for the season and a time when Hollywood film star Ava Gardner was at the pinnacle of her career. With her ‘thick black hair’ and bowed red lips contrasted dramatically with her stunning green eyes, she could be found wearing a white Spanish peasant blouse pulled off one shoulder and looking fabulous dancing in Madrid as the ‘Barefoot Contessa’ (1954) while keeping company with writers and matadors.
Balenciaga dressed Ava Gardner as he did so many other famous women, using drape, shape and cut to catch the eye.
He empowered her to love her body just like he did all the wearers of his clothes, who epitomized his era with grace, beauty and style.
Balenciaga is about to have his moment in the sun, well as close as you can get in London.
The fabled Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is putting the finishing touches to their first ever UK exhibition of his work, tracking his ‘profound and continuing influence on modern fashion’ for the new generation.
At the height of his success during the 1950s when Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ was becoming a dominant force in fashion, ‘Balenciaga went against the grain to revolutionise the female silhouette, creating a more modern, architectural aesthetic that stood away from the body rather than restricting it’ says Cassie Davies-Strodder, V&A exhibition curator.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion opens on May 27, 2017 and will be on show until February 18, 2018, so you have time to make plans to go and view this outstanding show.
The display will focus in detail on the garments made during the latter part of Balenciaga’s long career showcasing the 1950s and 1960s, arguably one of his most creative periods when he was considered ‘the master’ of haute couture’.
Fabled French designer Christian Dior said of him ‘Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.’
Working in a couture establishment for three years in Sydney during the eighties I learned from their famous experienced cutter how to appreciate the skill of the fashion designer who can take a concept as a whole as and design and cut a pattern so that a garment when rendered in fabric, can be made to gently caress the curves of the female body and showcase its form. She was like a great architect and builder rolled into one and Balenciaga was her role model.
Highlights of this fabulous exhibition will include ensembles made by Balenciaga for Hollywood actress Ava Gardner, dresses and hats belonging to socialite and 1960s fashion icon Gloria Guinness, and pieces worn by one of the world’s wealthiest women, Mona von Bismarck, who commissioned everything from ballgowns to gardening shorts from the couturier.
Drawing from the V&A’s own holdings of the largest collection of Balenciaga in the UK initiated for the Museum by famous photographer Cecil Beaton during the 1970’s on display will be some one hundred garments and twenty hats, many of which have never been shown to the public before. Accompanied by archive sketches, patterns, photographs, fabric samples and catwalk footage with x-rays, animated patterns and short films about couture-making processes, the display is all about forensically uncovering the hidden details that ensured that his work was exceptional.
A highpoint will be the ‘Legacy’ section, featuring the work of over thirty designers of the last fifty (50) years tracing the influence of this most revered figure in fashion right up to the present day.
From the minimalist aesthetic reflected in the work of his former apprentices André Courrèges and Emanuel Ungaro, to the work of Hubert de Givenchy and Erdem to the innovative use of new materials as referenced in the work of former Balenciaga creative director Nicolas Ghesquière, the display will reveal how his influence has spread far and wide.
A perfectionist, brilliantly creative and an innovator of his time, Balenciaga professionally and personally coveted the clothing a woman wore, taking charge and crafting a whole new silhouette, one that would be all about purity of form by becoming a masterwork of ‘cutting’.
Cassie Davies-Strodder noted he was ‘… revered by his contemporaries, … his exquisite craftsmanship, pioneering use of fabric and innovative cutting set the tone for the modernity of the late 20th century fashion’.
X-ray artist Nick Veasey has revealed the structures invisible to the naked eye, including dress weights strategically placed to determine the exact hang of the skirt in one of his most minimal designs, and boning in dress bodices, dispelling the myth that he did not use such structures.
Pattern cutting students from the London College of Fashion have taken patterns from some of the most iconic Balenciaga garments in the V&A’s collection to show how they came together to form the finished piece.
For those of us down under who are passionate about the art of fashion it should be well worth a plane ticket to go, just to shout Ole!
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018
May 27, 2017 – February 18, 2018
V&A Museum, London