Dovima with Sacha, cloche and suit by Balenciaga, Café des Deux Magots, Paris, 1955. Photograph by Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation copy.jpg

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 27 May 2017–18 February 2018

Originally published in Film, Fashion & Consumption, Volume 6, Number 2

 

Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga was a notoriously private man. During his career he gave few interviews and permitted very little access to journalists, choosing to let his work speak for itself. After his retirement, when approached about this by fashion journalist Prudence Glynn, Balenciaga stated that he found it impossible to describe his métier and felt a ‘reticence about being drawn into discussion and criticism of other designers’ (Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion 2017: 20). Contrary to Balenciaga’s aspiration to let the designs do the talking, his work - prominently displayed at this moment − is explained in detail and presented against the work of others. To mark the centenary of the opening of Balenciaga’s first fashion house in San Sebastian in 1917 and the 80th anniversary of the opening of his fashion house in Paris in 1937, the Victoria and Albert museum in London has mounted an exhibition dedicated to highlighting the designer’s work and its lasting impact.   

The exhibition, titled Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, is housed at the central core of the museum’s Costume Court, rather than in the infinitely larger temporary exhibition space used for the McQueen exhibition in 2015. The display, which takes over the two floors, is significantly smaller than one might initially expect for a designer whose body of work spans half a century. If expectations about size and showmanship are set by the V&A’s other blockbuster fashion exhibitions, such as the one dedicated to the work of the late Alexander McQueen or The Golden Age of Couture (2007), one is sure to be disappointed. Yet, what the exhibition lacks in flair and breath, it makes up by offering some new entry points to the work of a designer who has received a fair share of scholarly and curatorial attention recently. Indeed, whilst this is the first ever sole UK showcase of the designer’s work, it follows exhibitions such as Balenciaga Parisat Musée de la Mode et du Textiles in Paris (2006), Balenciaga: Spanish Master (2010) at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute and Balenciaga and Spain (2011) at the De Young in San Francisco. Simultaneously with this current show, Balenciaga: l’Oeuvre au Noir was on display at Musée Bourdelle in Paris (8 March–16 July 2017).  

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashionconsists of around 100 garments and twenty hats along with sketches, patterns, photographs, fabric samples and catwalk footage. The collection is largely assembled from the V&A’s own archives; these were initiated by photographer Cecil Beaton, who, in 1971, organized the first contemporary dress exhibition at the museum titled Fashion: An anthology by Cecil Beaton. In putting together the exhibition, Beaton persuaded wealthy women to donate their Balenciaga outfits for the museum; they took central stage in his showcase, and this pattern is featured here. The source of these dresses also sets the tone and balance of the showcase. Whilst Balenciaga opened his first fashion house in 1917, this exhibition focuses primarily on the latter part of the designer’s long career in the 1950s and the 1960s. 

The ground floor gallery is dedicated to the work of Balenciaga himself by exploring ‘make and wear’. Display boxes that punctuate the  look of the exhibition attempt to demystify aspects such as cut, construction and the use of materials, illustrated here by revealing some of the underpinnings of garments, deconstructing patterns and by shedding insight into the process of making through documentary short films. Working with artist Nick Veasey, some of the dresses have been X-rayed to reveal structural features such as dress weights and boning, otherwise invisible to the naked eye. The hem of a fuchsia pink 1955 silk taffeta evening dress has been lifted to reveal ties that attach to the legs in order for the dress to graciously pillow at the front.  The dusty pink ‘La Tulipe’ dress that has panels like petals effortlessly falling down the body is presented twice to reveal the cut and construction, also further illustrated by computer animation that digitally deconstructs and reconstructs the dress. Balenciaga is often referred to as a sculptor due to the qualities that his garments pose − such as the extreme simplicity that cannot just be called minimalism − and their moulded 3-dimensionality, the result of his training as a tailor. Yet, underneath the effortless lines, there are sophisticated mechanisms that support and structure, making him simultaneously an architect and an engineer.

The story of the garments, once they left the atelier, is told through the clients of Balenciaga. The names of the women who originally contributed dresses for Beaton’s exhibition such as Mona Bismarck, Pauline de Rothschild and Gloria Guinness feature regularly, along with actress Ava Gardner, who lived around the corner from V&A and donated, amongst others, the ‘La Tulipe’ dress (Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion 2017: 149−50). In addition to preserving the legacy of Balenciaga, these dresses also begin to tell a story beyond clothing, revealing intriguing insight into the commercial culture around couture. Detroit resident Elizabeth Parke Firestone, for instance, was not always able to attend seasonal fashion shows and instead her dedicated vendeuse Alice posted annotated sketches to help her make long-distance purchases (Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion 2017: 100). These clients are also a testament to Balenciaga’s timelessness as many of them continued to wear his garments well beyond his retirement, suggesting that his designs ‘did not become outdated immediately, that they could be worn after their original season of purchase without shame’ (Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion 2017: 125−26).

Attention has also been paid to Balenciaga’s other business, based in Spain, that traded under the label Eisa. Opened in 1927 in San Sebastian with the aim of capturing the wider clientele of the locale bourgeoisie, the house focused on high-end dressmaking rather than haute couture (Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion 2017: 182). Many of the styles produced by Eisa followed his designs presented in Paris under his signature label. It was the modern equivalent of a diffusion line, if you like, with garments costing about half the price of their Parisian counterparts (Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion 2017: 121). Many intriguing stories about Eisa and Balenciaga’s clients are told in a more thorough and compelling way in the catalogue, originally published in 2007 under the title of Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972): The Couturiers’ Couturier, revised and expanded to accompany this exhibition. 

‘Balenciaga alone is couturier in the truest sense of the word. Only he is capable of cutting material, assembling a creation and sewing it by hand. The others are simply fashion designers’ (Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion 2017: 22) declared the famously grumpy Gabrielle Chanel, who rarely had a good thing to say about other designers. Indeed, even during his lifetime Balenciaga already achieved a status that elevated him above the rest of his peers. The designer has been much referenced as one of the seminal designers of the twentieth century, who, in many ways, even more so than his contemporaries such as Chanel and Dior, set the standards for modern dress. One would think that his influence does not need spelling out, and yet the first floor of the exhibition is entirely dedicated to please the designer’s disciples. 

The arena upstairs, which features 30-odd designers, is in stark contrast to the gallery downstairs. Instead of closed display boxes, this space attempts to create a more contemporary and open feel. ‘Open’ could also be used as the operating term to describe how the designers, representing a timespan that covers the period from when Balenciaga closed his house in the late 1960s until the present day, have been selected to illustrate his influence. Themes that were set in motion downstairs are followed through with broad categories that group the designers under ‘minimalism’, ‘innovative pattern cutting’, ‘perfectionism’, ‘new materials’ and ‘shape and volume’ that attempt to establish connections. 

Although perhaps not the finest examples, the influence of Balenciaga is best seen in the work of Emmanuel Ungaro and Andre Courrèges, both of whom learned their craft with the designer. The few examples of Nicolas Ghesquière’s work, who worked as the creative director at Balenciaga between 1998 and 2012, illustrate the burden of having to conform to the heavy history of the house. But there are no examples of work by Michel Goma, Melchior Trimister or Alexander Wang, who all held similar roles at the house. Instead, the majority of other designers such as Molly Goddard, Erdem, Gareth Pugh, Roksand Ilinčić and Iris van Harpen, who occupy this space, provide contemporary excitement but  arguably offer very little in helping to understand the impact of Balenciaga’s work. Instead, these tenuous links place the designer’s superior work into a direct criticism of the work of others, the very thing that Balenciaga wanted to avoid. Despite it being carefully spelled out, a lot of imagination is needed to establish the connections between the different floors. 

But if comparisons are useful in helping to contextualize, then it is impossible not to measure Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion against its Parisian counterpart Balenciaga: l’Oeuvre au Noir. Forgetting the contemporary designer section, this first is more scholarly in its approach to making sense of Balenciaga’s work. The curation is framed by a traditional way of arranging dresses in a space that is perhaps lacking in flexibility. The V&A’s display boxes allow the exhibition curator Cassie Davies-Strodder to tackle bite-sized themes with a scattering of photographs, sketches and fabric samples that offer a snapshot but not a thorough understanding for those unfamiliar with the designer’s work. However, the accompanying book does an excellent job in explaining and expanding the narratives that begin in the gallery. 

In contrast, the latter, curated by Véronique Belloir and Olivier Saillard of the Palais Galliera, is impressionistic. The exhibition, displayed at the atmospheric environment at Musée Bourdelle amongst the sculptures created by the late artist, features only black garments made by Balenciaga. This visually concentrated theme brings in instant consistency, amplified by a more nuanced focus brought by categorizing the garments into themes such as ‘silhouettes and volume’, ‘black and colour’ and ‘black and light’. The singularly of the curation is matched by the synergy that it has with the space. The set design, made out of custom cabinets, artistic backdrops and stylish mannequins, is dominated by tones and textures of black. In the age of social media, everything is easily instagrammed at Balenciaga: l’Oeuvre au Noir-unlike at Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion. But what the exhibition makes up with style and strong curatorial handwriting, it lacks in broader insight that helps to take a dress beyond an object of mere visual pleasure, a quality that its V&A counterpart achieves well. 

It would be misguided to believe that one exhibition could reveal everything about a designer. Balenciaga was reluctant to explain his métier, but through the multiple perspectives offered by these different exhibitions, each with their own merits, a singular story emerges. Irrespective of the age, looking at Balenciaga’s work does not transport you back in history. He set the foundations for thinking about dressmaking not as an exercise in decorating and styling, but as a design discipline where the essence of a garment is intended to transcend time. Whilst Balenciaga did not like comparisons, when viewed against his disciples it is this quality that makes him unique. No matter how much insight Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion and the other exhibitions shed on the designers’ work and technique, it is also this quality that is impossible to articulate. In order to capture it, it needs to be learned and earned, just as with Cristóbal himself. 

 

Footnotes

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion(2017), exhibition catalogue, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 27 May 2017–18 February 2018.