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Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion opens in London

Culture

By Danielle Wightman-Stone

25 May 2017

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has launched its latest fashion exhibition dedicated to Cristóbal Balenciaga and the continuing influence of the Spanish designer on the current fashion industry, to coincide with the centenary of the fashion house’s opening in San Sebastian and the 80th anniversary of his move to Paris.

Showcasing more than 100 garments and 20 hats, many of which haven’t been on public display before, the Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition aims to put a spotlight on the innovation and design details of Cristóbal Balenciaga, and starts with a quote from Dior, who said: “Haute couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.”

This exhibition is less of a full retrospective of the designer’s work, instead Shaping Fashion focuses on the latter part of his career in the 1950s and 1960s, which the museum describes as his “most creative period”, as it introduced revolutionary shapes including the sack-dress, babydoll frocks, the tunic, and the shirt dress that all remain style staples today. With other highlights including the one-seam coat, the tie-on skirt that could be worn as a cape and the long puffball evening dresses.

“Cristóbal Balenciaga was one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century. Revered by his contemporaries, including Coco Chanel and Hubert de Givenchy, his exquisite craftsmanship, pioneering use of fabric and innovative cutting set the tone for the modernity of the late 20th century fashion,” said Cassie Davies-Strodder, V&A exhibition curator. “The exhibition shows his lasting impact on fashion through the work of those who trained with him and through recent garments designers including Molly Goddard, Demna Gvasalia and J.W. Anderson who reflect the legacy of the his vision today.”

Shaping Fashion is organised into three sections, ‘Front of House’ which includes Balenciaga’s salons, behind the scenes in Balenciaga’s ‘Workrooms’ and the lasting impact of ‘Balenciaga’s Legacy’ which features more than 30 designers of the last 50 years tracing the influence of the revered fashion designer including minimalistic designs by his former apprentices André Courrèges and Emanuel Ungaro, as well as the perfectionism and attention to detail of the glamorous eveningwear by Hubert de Givenchy, who the designer acted as a mentor for after meeting in 1955.

It was this Legacy section that seemed to dominate the exhibition, it has more space as it is in the lighter, airy setting of the top fashion gallery, rather than the majority of the Balenciaga pieces that were place behind glass display cases with very low-lighting, required to show delicate fabrics, but making it difficult to see the exquisitely crafted pieces.

Here there were designs from contemporary designers split into five areas of Balenciaga’s influence: Minimalism; Perfectionism; Innovative Pattern-Cutting; Shape and Volume; and New Materials. Highlights included Hussein Chalayan’s ruffled pod dress, Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons pink polyurethane leather architectural dress, Molly Goddard’s babydoll frock, Paco Rabanne’s space-age mini with plastic pailettes, and even pieces by Demna Gvasalia, current creative director of the house, including an off-the-shoulder ski jacket that has been created entirely through pattern-cutting from inspiration from Balenciaga’s coats with open, push-back necklines.

V&A opens new fashion exhibition examining the influence of Cristóbal Balenciaga

The most interesting section of this exhibition has to be the making of the Balenciaga pieces, getting an insight into the designer’s creative thought process as well as the way he constructed the pieces, with a look at key concepts such his love of architectural shapes, his obsession with sleeves and how his collections all started with textiles with him quoted as saying: “It is the fabric that decides”.

To highlight Balenciaga’s attention to detail, the V&A has also used x-ray technology for the first time to take a forensic look at the hidden details inside his garments. The x-ray images displayed alongside the dresses were captured by Nick Veasey who created the world’s first mobile x-ray art studio to create the life-sized x-ray images. The innovative technique sheds new light on the designers exquisite craftsmanship such as the curious leg-ties within the 1954 balloon hem dress that shows subtle internal hooping to support the garment's many swathes of fabric, while an x-ray of a 1967 cape dress made from a single piece of silk gazar for socialite Gloria Guinness, unearths strategically placed weights at the front of the dress that determine its abstract, architectural hang.

Commenting on the use of the technology alongside the fashion, Nick Veasey, said: “X-ray is an honest process. It has integrity. It shows how well things are made or not, revealing previously hidden internal details.

“The collaboration with the V&A gave me access to stunning couture garments made by ‘The Master’ of fashion. The results, I am pleased to say are beguilingly beautiful as befits these iconic examples of historic fashion.”

Davies-Strodder, added: “Showing garments, that are intended to be worn and touched, on static mannequins and behind glass is always challenging. Displaying Balenciaga’s work is a particular challenge as the exceptional craftsmanship is often in the details you cannot see.

“The beautiful x-ray images Nick has created enable us to show, at a glance, those hidden details which make his work so special. They have given us a greater understanding of these exquisite pieces in our collection, and shed new light on Balenciaga’s mastery and technique.”

Other highlights 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.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, sponsored by American Express, is at the V&A from May 27 May – February 18, 2018.

Images: courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London and Nick Veasey