Walk into “Shaping Fashion”, a new exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum in London, and you will see a row of statuesque mannequins wearing delicate silks, wool and taffeta all cut meticulously into curious architectural shapes. The designs are as peculiar as their creator, Cristóbal Balenciaga. To the despair of fashion editors, he insisted that they use his moody, often middle-aged models – known as “the monsters” – when shooting his clothes. He gave only one interview in his life and banned the press from attending many of his shows. He was rarely seen in public.
But among his contemporaries, he was revered. Christian Dior said, “Haute couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.” His atelier shows, known for their hushed, solemn atmosphere, inspired awe. Diana Vreeland, who edited Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, recalled: “One fainted…I remember at one show in the early 1960s, Audrey Hepburn turned to me and asked why I wasn't frothing at the mouth.”
For Balenciaga, who was Spanish, fashion was in the blood. His mother was a seamstress, and he spent his childhood helping her with her work. At the age of 12, he became a tailor’s apprentice, and learned to design, cut and sew with precision – skills that later set him apart from his peers who were not master tailors like he was. In 1919, aged 24, he struck out on his own, opening a boutique in San Sebastián, Spain, before relocating to Paris in 1937 to open an atelier on Avenue George V. During the 1950s and 1960s his clothes became the most exclusive and innovative in the city. Under his watch, the hourglass silhouette – considered the essence of femininity at the time – was tossed aside in favour of bold, abstract structures. With his “sack” dress, “baby doll” and, perhaps the most unusual of his dresses, the “envelope”, he changed the shape of womenswear.
While the brand of Balenciaga is widely known, somehow the man has been forgotten. Ask most people what they think of his work and you are likely to be met with an apathetic shrug. The V&A’s exhibition intends to change that. It makes the case for his work’s profound and continued influence on fashion. Alongside Balenciaga’s original designs are pieces by contemporary designers like Molly Goddard, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and Phoebe Philo of Céline, who have all drawn inspiration from his inventiveness. But perhaps most provocatively, the exhibition demonstrates that Balenciaga’s new creative director, Demna Gvasalia, who many feared would extinguish the brand’s spirit of disruption, has in fact fanned it. Balenciaga remains a house where rebellious innovation rules.
Evening dress, silk taffeta (1954); X-ray photograph of evening dress by Nick Veasey (2016)
Although Balenciaga is better known for his daring take on the silhouette, many of his early pieces were classically glamorous and demonstrated a traditional approach to couture. For years many have believed that Balenciaga did not use corsetry to create his dramatic, structural pieces. The curators recruited X-ray artist Nick Veasey, whose photographs hang next to selected pieces in the exhibition, to reveal the insides of these extraordinary shapes. This is a photograph of a balloon-hem evening dress Balenciaga made in 1954 – one of his most ambitious designs. Look closely, and you can see the internal wire hooping that supports the garment’s bountiful fabric. Images like this are a rare glimpse into Balenciaga’s complex designs.
“Baby doll” cocktail dress, crêpe de chine, lace and satin (1958)
Balenciaga’s greatest contribution to fashion was his radical approach to shape. His “sack”, a straight up-and-down wool shift dress that hid any hint of a figure and came only in black, was met with gasps when he unveiled it in 1957. The Daily Mirror cried: “It’s hard to be sexy in a sack!” But his designs from this period foreshadowed the carefree mood and simple geometrical fashions of the 1960s. After the sack came the “baby doll”, a dainty dress made from delicate Chantilly lace which hung loosely from the wearer’s shoulders and created a triangular silhouette. With these dresses Balenciaga made his case for a femininity liberated from constricting corsetry – and won.
Spiral hat, silk (1962)
Unlike most couturiers, who outsourced their millinery, Balenciaga had two workshops dedicated to hat-making at his atelier. This silk hat resembles the popular pillbox hats of the 1950s, but the dramatic spirals that structure it exemplify Balenciaga’s approach to design: re-invent the ordinary.
Alberta Tiburzi in “envelope” dress, Harper’s Bazaar (1967)
By the late 1960s, Balenciaga’s designs were becoming increasingly elaborate and avant-garde. His “envelope” dress, made a year before he retired, was highly unusual. Dominated by large structural shoulders, with a tight hem that nips the wearer’s knees together, the dress created an abstract shape, and was celebrated by the fashion press. Though that didn’t stop one customer from returning it – she couldn’t figure out how to go to the bathroom in it.
Skirt suit, wool and silk, Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga, Paris, Autumn/Winter 2016
The exhibition concludes with this piece by Demna Gvasalia, which is displayed next to one of Balenciaga’s classic suits from the 1950s. Gvasalia, who took the reins at Balenciaga in 2015, was a controversial appointment. With his brand, Vetements, known for its oversized tracksuits, heavily padded bomber jackets and T-shirts emblazoned with the DHL logo, he transformed streetwear into high-fashion. Many thought that Gvasalia’s aesthetic was worlds apart from Balenciaga’s. The exhibition turns this notion on its head. The boxy, structural shape of Gvasalia’s blazer takes its cues from Balenciaga’s exaggerated approach to the female form. Modern as it seems, it’s a look straight from the archives.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion Victoria & Albert museum, London, until February 18th