It’s one of the fashion world’s most hotly-anticipated exhibitions, and Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum has been well worth the wait.

Considering the far-reaching impact of this fashion house, from mentoring future fashion greats like Emanuel Ungaro and André Courrèges, to influencing a host of hot UK designers like Gareth Pugh and Molly Goddard, it’s only right that Balenciaga’s genius should be analysed. And, as soon as you enter the exhibition, you can see the distinctive talent behind the name.

In between the dark wood panelled central display cases, the cleverly integrated videos, and the preliminary sketches and fabric swatches, you’ll find some of the most innovative designs of 20th century style: a gorgeous Amphora line dress, following the shape of a Greek vase; pieces influenced by kimonos and saris, but with Western twists; nods to the Basque heritage of the man behind the label, the mysterious Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Whilst previous exhibitions about the fashion house proved popular in New York and Paris, London’s take on Balenciaga has been a long time coming, but the V&A archivists have always prized these designs. The V&A was fortunate when local resident and Hollywood legend Ava Gardner donated many of her dresses to the archives, but this exhibition also showcases the magpie-like finds of several other impossibly rich fashionistas, such as Gloria Guinness’ cream pillbox hat. Text panels accompanying the exhibition reveal the bizarre world these women lived in: many of them even asked local dressmakers to copy their Balenciaga couture pieces, so they’d have replicas to place in their other homes, and would therefore never need to pack for travelling.

The early parts of the exhibition deconstruct the magic of Cristóbal Balenciaga, whose precocious childhood talent for tailoring saw him quickly turn professional and launch a series of Spanish ateliers, mainly catering to rich wives of Spanish aristocrats and businessmen. His move to Paris, to escape the Spanish Civil War, only accelerated his progress in elite fashion circles.

Glimpses of Balenciaga’s workrooms in Spain and his couture shows in Paris – including incredible video footage – reveal the sheer human effort behind what often seem effortless designs. Painstakingly recorded X-ray scans by Nick Veasey demonstrate the tricks Balenciaga employed, such as hidden weights and hoops, to create elegant drapery with often minimal sewing. Of course, this all came at a price, but his diffusion line, Eisa, was cheaper. You could also buy versions of Balenciaga pieces at Harrods, which had bought dress and hat patterns at a serious mark-up, and recreated them in their very own Harrods workrooms from 1938 to the designer’s retirement in 1968.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion‘s curator Cassie Davies-Strodder has worked hard to uncover stories such as these, brought to life by accompanying exhibits, giving you a stronger sense of the processes behind the designs. She’s also added some quirky interactive elements, such as a one page origami template of a Balenciaga dress, and a mint green piece that visitors can choose to wear as a cape or skirt.

Upstairs is the chance to discover the revived fashion house under Nicholas Ghesquière (now at Louis Vuitton) and Demna Gvasalia, plus the many other designers who have learned from Balenciaga’s creative output. For Dries Van Noten, 50s Balenciaga is a major influence; for Gareth Pugh, “he elevated that idea of simplicity inside something that is luxury,”. Most of the designs on show are quite conceptual, particularly those by Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Rory Parnell-Mooney, but some are more wearable, like Roksanda Ilincic’s classic fuchsia pink lantern sleeve dress. However, it would help to have more analysis behind these modern designs, and perhaps a deconstruction of the patterns to match those in the downstairs displays.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is a blockbuster exhibition, and one that will leave you feeling seriously envious of the couture collectors who could afford to fill their wardrobes with the fashion house’s designs. However, it also gives you some great inspiration for accessible high street shopping, as Balenciaga’s influence can still be felt in the shops today.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion runs from 27th May 2017 – 18th February 2018, sponsored by American Express. Tickets are now on sale from the V&A website and the museum itself (admission £12; concessions available).