Minimalism is New. Minimalism and elegance don’t mix. Both these ideas are commonplace assumptions – and errors. They don’t apply in architecture, which is where they are usually, and carelessly, aired. And they’re also wrong when it comes to fashion, as this exhibition – the first ever one exploring the work of fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga– makes abundantly clear.
Born in Guetaria, a fishing village in the Spanish Basque region, in 1895, Balenciaga’s father was a fisherman, his mother a seamstress. As a young teenager, he began his career in fashion as an apprentice tailor. His work was then spotted by the Marquesa de Casa Torres, one of his mother’s clients, who not only commissioned items from him, but also sent him to Madrid to learn tailoring from the country’s best ones. Success for Balenciaga came slowly – after working in Spain, he opened his famous fashion house in Paris in 1937. But he wasn’t commercially-minded and, allied with that unfortunate trait, was selective about who he dressed. Possibly fearing plagiarism, he banned the press from his shows. This exhibition thus shows an approach to the business of fashion markedly different from the avid commercialism of today.
But why does his work matter? Like Coco Chanel, Balenciaga wanted to free women from the over-extravagant externals of pre-First World War styles in fashion. He wanted to combine beauty – ha hated vulgarity and bad taste – with simplicity. And it was a combination which worked, with women such as Mona von Bismarck (the inaugural recipient of the Best Dressed Woman in the world award) and the actresses Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn and Ava Gardner. Whilst the styles were simple, the wearer needed to combine the clothes with a spirit of hauteur.
What eye-catching examples of Balenciaga’s work in the exhibition arguably best exemplify his approach to fashion? An evening coat made of wool (1950), has a striking folding kimono, toga-like cut, and enables free movement. A red silk taffeta evening dress (1954), looks traditional with a bustle-like back, but space is created via ‘bagging out’ so that the dress not only enables the wearer to have move freely, but also dramatically balloons-out (the V&A has used x-ray technology to examine the hidden features of the construction methods Balenciaga employed with his garments which enabled them to work they way they did). A spiral silk hat (1962) shows a simple continuous-looking, ever-expanding ring of circles (Balenciaga, didn’t design the hats himself, but worked closely with hat designers). Balenciaga was a devout Catholic, and we see a black evening cape (1966) which takes its inspiration from the Church’s liturgy, specifically a cape worn by certain of the clergy and called a mozetta (it also draws attention to the recurring and intriguing link between Catholicism, LGBT creatives and their work). A cocktail dress in silk gazar (1967), shows a striking experimentation with body shape, but one which went against Balenciaga’s usual practicality (one wearer returned it to the fashion house as she couldn’t go to the bathroom in it). Whilst Spanish art provided Balenciaga’s palette, he was open to other sources for colour, and we see a hand-painted dress (1955-6) based on Chinese wallpaper.
With the coming of the Sixties fashion entered a new era. The eruptions of second-wave feminism and social Marxism, combined with the advent of ready-to-wear fashion collections rendered haute couture – and the social attitudes which went with it – seemingly dead. Balenciaga closed his fashion house in 1968 and died, in his native land, in 1972. Yet the legacy of his work has influenced designers far and wide. Cassie Davies-Strodder, a Curator of 20th and 21st century fashion collections at the V&A and curator of this exhibition, points-out that: ‘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. The exhibition shows his lasting impact on fashion through the work of those who trained with him and through recent garments by designers including Molly Goddard, Demna Gvasalia and J.W. Anderson who reflect the legacy of his vision today.’ Figures such as André Courrèges, Emanuel Ungaro, Paco Rabanne, Oscar de la Renta and Nicolas Ghesquière have all paid tribute to him as an influence. Some commentators have seen his influence in work from designers such as Phoebe Philo at Céline, Rei Kawabuko and Comme des Garçons and Erdem. Among the examples of his legacy with current designers, we see a gloriously billowing women’s ensemble in polyurethane leather by Kawabuo for Comme des Garçons (A/W 2016).
Fellow-designer Elsa Schiaparelli once said that ‘Balenciaga is the only designer who dares to do what he wants.’ The content of this exhibition is an inspirational master-class for the designer wishing to summon-up the artistic and commercial courage to free their inspiration, and stylish excitement for the rest of us.
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Words: Nicky Charlish