Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) left such an indelible mark on the world of fashion design that his contemporary Coco Chanel once described him as the “only couturier in the truest sense of the word. The others are simply fashion designers”. This is high praise from fashion’s grande dame, and a new exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, titled Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, seeks to uncover why this virtuoso is universally regarded as the maestro of modern fashion design, haute couture, and architectural cut, shape and material.
X-ray photograph by Nick Veasey of Balenciaga’s 1955 silk taffeta evening dress
Born in Getaria, a small fishing village in the Basque region of northern Spain, Cristóbal Balenciaga first encountered fashion through his mother, a seamstress whose clients included glamorous ladies from the local provinces. Remarkably, when Balenciaga was only twelve years old, he began an apprenticeship at a tailor’s shop in the fashionable resort town of San Sebastian, which would shape his career significantly. Here, he learned technical skills that other couturiers lacked, including pattern drafting and cutting and the ability to assemble and finish a garment. In 1917, he established his first label, Eisa, which he always maintained as a diffusion line offering more affordable options to his clients. He then opened houses in Barcelona and Madrid before moving to Paris in 1937, with the Parisian outpost becoming the city’s most exclusive global destination for couture. Balenciaga’s reputation was that of a fierce perfectionist, his precision so exacting that he was known for ripping apart seams that were not to his liking and insisting his models walk in a stilted, haughty march in order to allow the garments to languish properly upon their bodies.
Alberta Tiburzi in Cristóbal Balenciaga’s “Envelope Dress”, 1967. Photograph by Hiro Wakabayashi for Harper’s Bazaar
His uncompromising fastidiousness was not only astounding, but his approach to the shape and execution of his designs was also radical and extraordinarily clever – he pioneered new architectural shapes in women’s fashion, which he refined from season to season for his devoted clientele including Ava Gardner, Gloria Guinness and Mona von Bismarck, one of the richest women in the world who, upon hearing that Balenciaga had closed his fashion house in 1968, reportedly shut herself away in her room for three days. His designs, such as the baby doll and balloon-hemmed dresses, were groundbreaking. For example, he provoked the fashion world in 1957 when he introduced the “sack dress” at a time when Christian Dior’s New Look and hourglass silhouettes where very much still de rigeur; although the “sack” was met at first with disdain from the fashion press, the sleek, straight-up-and-down form that eliminated the wearer’s waist eventually filtered into the shift and mini dresses so popular in the 1960s and 1970s. This inclination toward abstraction would culminate in Balenciaga’s four-pointed, angular “envelope dress” of 1967, launched to critical acclaim and made from his favorite fabric, the lightweight but rigid silk gazar. Balenciaga’s sculptural forms would not only define mid-century fashion, but would also continue to inspire generations of designers in his wake, such as Paco Rabanne, Emanuel Ungaro, and Andre Courrèges, as well as the most recent Creative Directors of this resurrected fashion house, Nicolas Ghesquière and Demna Gvasalia.
Balenciaga’s spiral silk hat for Eisa, 1962 (left) and Nick Veasey’s X-ray photograph of the hat (right), with the hair comb still tucked inside
This exhibition is not a definitive retrospective of Balenciaga’s work, instead highlighting the 1950s and 1960s as seminal decades in his oeuvre. Curator Cassie Davies-Strodder explains that the V&A sought to present the subject matter in a new manner to the staid clothes-on-a-mannequin approach often seen in exhibitions of contemporary fashion and historical clothing. “We are using new approaches, such as X-ray images and pattern animations, to reveal the hidden elements of Balenciaga’s design and construction process invisible to the naked eye,” she explains. The museum worked with photographer Nick Veasey to reveal in a new light the hidden structures and craftsmanship inherent in Balenciaga’s creations: the boning, hoops, dress weights, and even left-behind dress pins and hair combs all divulge themselves through Vesey’s forensic investigations. These images of Balenciaga’s work give us, as modern architects, a fresh insight into structure and form, not to mention the haunting reminder of the human hands that “built” these architectural feats of fashion.
“Perfect Form”, by Anna Zappia, Metropolis Magazine, May 2017 (print: p.156-161) and online