Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion

· A review of this year’s fashion exhibition at the V&A ·

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A Balenciaga suit and some tailoring supplies

If you’ve ever wanted to know how beautiful and surprising fashion can be, stop by Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at the V&A in London. This year’s fashion exhibition explores Cristóbal Balenciaga’s career, label, and legacy, charting the history and craft of his garments.

Spread over two levels, the exhibition includes both historical and contemporary pieces. The ground level is dedicated to Balenciaga’s career from the 1930s until his salon closed in 1968. It emphasizes Balenciaga’s unique process. Having been trained in tailoring, Balenciaga began his designs by toiling – draping, cutting, and fitting muslin on a body form – rather than a pattern. This helped to create the distinct structural quality of his designs, and the flattering way he fit the designs to the wearer.

After opening the exhibition with pieces that show how Balenciaga was inspired by his native Spain – a jacket inspired by toreadors’ bullfighting dress, a flamenco-inspired dress, among others – it moves to focus on this craft. It shows some of his most structural gowns as the finished product alongside the muslin toile and an x-ray of the inside structure projected behind. The final gown rotates so visitors can see all sides and the x-ray shows how much detail there is beneath what the eye sees. If you don’t already appreciate the architecture of Balenciaga’s designs, it doesn’t take long to become enamoured. Amazingly, many of his designs were constructed from a single piece of fabric.

The exhibition continues to chart the label’s history and Balenciaga’s disruptive presence in the fashion industry in the mid-twentieth century. It looks at his innovative use of cut, drape, and fabric and how they depend on each other. It reveals his various inspiration, as well as his diverse clientele: his salon in Paris attracted a bolder, more confident fashionable elite, while his more accessible Spanish boutiques, Eisa, were for the more conservative – both financially and in taste. Shaping Fashion displayed designs from both the couture house and Eisa and helped explain this difference through the stories of some of his regular clients. A nice touch as one of the things I always wonder at fashion exhibitions is who wore these. For what is fashion without the wearer?

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Balenciaga at the V&A

One of the most interesting stories on the first level was that of Balenciaga’s relationship with the press and the fashion cycle. As the craziness of fashion month recently wrapped up, it’s an interesting topic as designers and labels choose new ways to present their collections and disrupt the fashion industry (i.e. see now, buy now and Snapchat shows). We learn from the exhibition that Balenciaga was the original disruptor. With several designs on display in a mock salon show, the exhibition text reads:

The parade of new designs was a serious affair with no music, and lasted up to an hour and a half. Balenciaga chose unconventional models whom he trained himself…He refused to give his designs names, unlike other designers, and would not bow at the end of the show, preferring the clothes to speak for themselves.

Not only did his shows diverge from the norm, but in 1956 he barred the press from his initial shows. He made the press wait until commercial buyers and clients had seen them, making clear who he felt was most important. It’s clear throughout the exhibition that his relationship with his clients was everything. In an age when it seems that everything is done for the press, it is a refreshing and radical idea.

Having covered the entirety of Balenciaga’s career from 1937 to the closing of his house in 1968, the exhibition focuses on his legacy on the second level. Opening this theme, a tweed skirt suit by Balenciaga himself in 1951 stands juxtaposed with a similar tweed skirt suit by Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga in 2016. But Balenciaga’s influence is not just seen in Gvasalia’s designs and his own namesake label. It’s seen in the designers who apprenticed under him and those who grew up admiring his work.

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This part of the exhibition is broken up into categories where you can see Balenciaga’s influence: innovative pattern-cutting, perfectionism, new materials, minimalism, and shape and volume. Along with Gvasalia’s work, it includes quotes, works, and interviews (projected on the wall) by designers such as Gareth Pugh and Molly Goddard. Designs vary from an Erden mini-dress and an Oscar de la Renta floral ball gown (de la Renta worked briefly with Balenciaga at the beginning of his career) to the highly structural gowns of Rei Kawakubo and Iris van Herpen.

These structural pieces have a more direct connection to Balenciaga’s work, while Mary Quant’s mini dress and Phoebe Philo’s simple white gown take a more nuanced understanding of Balenciaga’s minimalism – something that is highlighted on the floor below. In this way, the exhibition succeeds. On the ground floor, due to the structural nature of many of the designs and the emphasis on their construction and design, I was reminded of Rei Kawakubo: Art of the In-Between at the Met. Upstairs, this feeling was confirmed as a Comme des Garçons piece is on prominent display. Having learned about Balenciaga’s world below, you begin to see his influence where you may not have before: the bell sleeves of a Roksanda Ilincic dress, the tailored-to-perfection nature of Alexander McQueen’s designs.

Thus, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is about how Balenciaga shaped his garments, yes. But even more so it is about how he continues to shape fashion even today.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until 18 February 2018.


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