Balenciaga has become one of today’s most talked-about labels, especially since Vetements founder Demna Gvasalia took over the Artistic Direction of the brand in 2015. The Georgian designer’s name rings a bell to pretty much everyone familiar with fashion nowadays. But, it is the history of the brand and its forward thinking, innovative founder, Cristóbal Balenciaga, that created a legacy that influenced designers throughout the world, and ultimately shaped the way women dress today. In the words of Christian Dior:
“Haute Couture is like an orchestra; whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.”
V&A recently opened its doors to its first ever UK exhibition, Shaping Fashion, displaying a dedicated exhibition the work of the Spanish master and his continuing influence on modern fashion. The exhibition, which will run until February 2018, is in a relatively small space compared to other designers the museum previously hosted, like the “Savage Beauty” by Alexander McQueen. This is partly due to the lack of clothes on display by Balenciaga himself. Historically, designer clothes were usually made to specific orders, either couture or ready-to-wear. Since designers were not required to create new collections every 3-6 months, many of his original pieces are lost or in private collections. Some of Balenciaga’s loyal clients included Hollywood actress Ava Gardner, 60’s socialite Gloria Guinness, and one of the world’s wealthiest women at the time, Mona von Bismarc. The latter commissioned everything from ball-gowns to gardening shorts from the couturier – and supposedly didn’t leave her room for three days after the designer’s death in 1972.
It wasn’t until the 50’s and 60’s until Balenciaga developed his signature style, which is the time period the Shaping Fashion exhibition focuses on. This era of artistic work is defined by architectural silhouettes and creative play with volume and detail. Yet, despite the ruffles and excessive silhouettes, his work remains thoughtfully constructed and balanced. The exhibition uses x-ray technology, courtesy of x-ray artist Nick Veasey, to show details in the construction and the hidden components of structures invisible to the naked eye, like dress weights and bodice boning. The dresses on display are paired with archive sketches, patterns, photographs, fabric swatches and catwalk footage. It’s amazing to see some of the cocktail dresses and know they could be worn even today – his artistic vision was truly timeless and continues to this day.
The fashion house certainly has an interesting history. After the death of Balenciaga, they moved into predominantly perfume sales, and the label slowly disappeared from the world’s fashion radar. It wasn’t until Nicholas Ghesquière took over the creative helm in 1997 that everything changed, and Balenciaga surged back on the fashion map. Ghesquière was an innovator himself, who ruled the catwalks until his departure in 2012. The label then had a brief encounter with Alexander Wang, the young, iconic American fashion designer, who replaced Ghesquière after his departure. Most recently, Gvasalia, a designer with a more radical vision has taken over, adding a cool touch to the minimalist heritage of the brand.
The exhibition’s curator, Cassie Davies-Strodder, has also decided to feature pieces direcly influenced by Balenciaga’s work in the upstairs gallery area, with pieces from his former apprentices, Courrèges and Emanuel Ungaro, and timeless designers Azzedine Alia and Issey Miyake. It also features contemporaries like Phoebe Philo (Celine), Erdem and J.W. Anderson amongst others, exploring the influence of Balenciaga’s designs on modern fashion to this day.
Featured image: Alberta Tiburzi in ‘envelope’ dress by Cristobal Balenciaga, Harper’s Bazaar, June 1967 ©Hiro 1967, courtesy of V&A Museum