It’s not often you see an x-ray in a fashion exhibition, but then, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is no run-of-the-mill show. In an upcoming blockbuster exhibition, the V&A is celebrating a master of couture, Cristóbal Balenciaga, who – despite his ongoing impact on the entire fashion industry – isn’t a household name. It takes an x-ray to understand just how talented this Spanish craftsman was, with an unrivalled attention to detail and a legacy that’s inspired the likes of Rei Kawakubo, JW Anderson and Erdem.
Today, his fashion house is headed up by the edgy Demna Gvasalia (yes, the bloke who brought back streetwear and championed DHL t-shirts at Vetements). But Balenciaga’s reign as the priciest couturier in Paris is the focal point here: pieces custom-made for each client, painstakingly fitted, and anything but fast fashion.
Unlike the V&A’s high-profile Alexander McQueen show, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion will need explaining to some. Balenciaga certainly influenced other big names, like Chanel and Givenchy, but he didn’t share their reputation. Love them or hate them, the Kardashians are probably the most famous 21st century Balenciaga fans, but even their prolific media coverage hasn’t propelled the brand name into the public’s style lexicon. He was the antithesis of the Kardashians’ publicity machine: notoriously private. “He didn’t like the press,” says curator Cassie Davies-Strodder. “He only gave one press interview, and that was after he’d retired, in 1972.”
The Balenciaga atelier was also secretive: no clothing in the windows, just bizarre craft installations. At the atelier, he’d make dresses for Ava Gardner, who later donated many of them to the V&A, or couture gardening shorts – which were somehow a thing – for the über-rich Mona von Bismarck.
Balenciaga was a child prodigy (he took up an apprenticeship at 12 and opened his first fashion house a decade later) and a trailblazer. If you thought baby doll dresses were a 60s invention, you’d be wrong; he made them in 1957; he also dreamed up bizarre ‘envelope’ dress. These pieces might explain why Gvasalia, a fellow risk-taker, now heads up the fashion house.
Balenciaga had a higher level of involvement than other designers in the physical process of dressmaking, placed amid the fray in a white lab coat; the craftsmanship of each piece was important to his creative vision. Whilst the ‘Front of House’ section of the exhibition will immerse visitors as they arrive, with hints of Balenciaga’s heavy-duty atelier fashion shows (some were up to two hours long), the ‘Workrooms’ that follow will demystify the magic, including glimpses of his in-house millinery work, and digitised copies of his patterns studied by London College of Fashion students. If you loved the Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition in London a couple of years ago, which profiled the artisans behind the designs, don’t miss the Balenciaga equivalent, with footage of embroidery and beadwork processes from Lesage in Paris.
The exhibition’s final section, ‘Legacy’, will involve interviews and exhibits from designers who’ve admired or referenced Balenciaga. Nicholas Ghesquière combed the archives whilst he was Balenciaga’s creative director, to inspire new work (he left abruptly after 15 years’ service, but fans remember him fondly). Ready-to-wear may not have been Balenciaga’s cup of tea, yet his pattern-cutting and innovation translates to RTW collections and even some familiar high-street items we have in our wardrobes today, like baby doll dresses or cocoon coats. You get the feeling his name will be as widespread as those items once this exhibition opens.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion runs from 27th May 2017 – 18th February 2018. Tickets are now on sale from the V&A website and the museum itself (admission £12; concessions available).