PARIS — “The clothes look very familiar. Some of them I actually wore,” Martha Stewart quipped on Tuesday night after previewing the “Balenciaga Paris” exhibition at the Museum of Fashion and Textiles here. Among the VIPs, many of them dressed in Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière, were Jennifer Connelly, Maggie Cheung, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marianne Faithfull.
“The baton has been passed over to Nicolas Ghesquière so beautifully,” Connelly pronounced about the exhibition, which spans the almost 70 years since Cristobal Balenciaga set up shop in Paris.
Even men had an opinion on the clothes. “I particularly liked the looks from 1939; they were very severe,” said Hugh Grant, who was accompanied by Jemima Khan.
“It was interesting to see all the stages where Nicolas Ghesquière got his inspiration,” said Cheung, who is featured in a mini fashion film in the exhibition. “It is always interesting to look at history. The juxtaposition of modernity with tradition exemplified the extremity of Balenciaga.”
And that’s exactly what Ghesquière set out to showcase.
“I wanted to put Balenciaga in a very contemporary environment,” said the designer, who’s no fan of historical decor. “The high-tech elements were very important.”
No wonder the mannequins for Ghesquière’s designs are otherworldly droids with flashing eyes, turning the tables on the spectators. Even Balenciaga’s designs are set in a “galactic landscape,” blasting them back to the future. Ghesquière tapped artist Dominique Gonzales-Foerster and lighting expert Benoit Lalloz to realize his extraterrestrial vision. The trio faced certain restrictions, including the fact that lighting had to be kept low so as not to harm historic garments. Still, it all adds up to a transporting experience up to and including a case that resembles a teleportation scene from “Star Trek.”
As for the clothes, Ghesquière said visitors should discover that Balenciaga, often associated with austere and black designs, had a colorful side, too. Mustard yellow, fuchsia, and offbeat violets and greens are all on display, along with Balenciaga’s three recurrent prints: polkadots, stripes and florals. One red dotted dress and cape, awash in ruffles, resembles a ladybug.
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“There is so much fantasy,” the designer enthused. “There is print, color and craziness in the embroidery. And yes, there are big volumes, but even the most spectacular pieces are not that big. There was a balance of volume. That to me is the essence of elegance.”
The exhibition is billed as the first major retrospective of Cristobal Balenciaga in more than three decades, and the first ever in Paris, the city where he cemented his fashion reputation. The show spans 170 looks, 147 of which are the work of the Spanish master, and the remaining 23 by Ghesquière, who took the house’s creative reins in 1997.
Curator Pamela Golbin traveled the globe in search of emblematic Balenciaga garments, borrowing from collections in Japan, England, Spain, France and the United States. Finding clothes was not a problem, owing to the designer’s long, prolific career and the fact that his careful choice of fabrics and expert cutting left many garments in mint condition, she said.
The exhibition is laid out over two floors, largely chronologically, ending with Ghesquière’s designs and a prototype wedding dress from 1967, one year before Balenciaga’s retirement.
During a walk-through on Monday, Golbin halted at a case showing dresses from 1937, the year Balenciaga set up his Paris house after years of selling his own designs and those of others in Spain. She explained that the couturier’s fashion vocabulary was largely set by then, and his entire career would center on garment construction— experimenting with volume and reducing the number of seams — and various surface treatments, including densely layered embellishments. “He’s not into pretty aspects,” she said. “It’s an esthetic point of view.”
Indeed, his precision silhouettes clearly shift in themed cases, from his take on Christian Dior’s New Look, to his iconic sack and chemise dresses through to free-fall backs late in his career that ultimately morphed into full-on trains. By the end of his career, he had simplified his cutting to mostly geometric forms: the circle, semi-circle, rectangle and square.
Evening capes are a recurrent theme, as are references to Balenciaga’s Spanish roots, especially his spectacularly beaded boleros. But so is experimentation, from bath mat-like coats made of fake fur — daring for a couture collection — to a black bolero reminiscent of a cabbage that rises up and almost swallows the head.
In one case, a dress is displayed next to its bodice turned inside out to show how Balenciaga rigged an internal harness of grosgrain that kept the crepe fabric in place. Anyone who has visited the Balenciaga boutique in Paris with a decor reminiscent of a health club aboard a spacecraft will find many common elements in the exhibition: iceberg-like forms, odd geometric portals and swimming pool tiles.
The further one ventures into the retrospective, the more the futuristic elements increase. But there are high-tech elements throughout, including flat-screen televisions showing sketches by Balenciaga on various hotel letterheads. Others broadcast rare footage of the couturier during a fitting, his concentration palpable, and worked through to a compilation of Ghesquière’s rapid-fire fashion shows.
Ghesquière chose to exhibit mostly his recent work, which has been rich in archival references, culminating with what he called a “reference collection” for the coming fall-winter season. The designer said the house’s heritage has helped him to become “more conscious of the very concrete elements of the brand. I think it’s now incorporated into my spirit.”
And the house continues to enlarge its archive, giving it more latitude with its Balenciaga Edition label of archival reissues. “The girls love it. It’s like having new vintage clothes. It’s a very interesting concept,” said Ghesquière. “Edition has a really incredible potential. The concept is, ‘This is timeless,’ so it’s timeless forever.”
The Balenciaga exhibition runs through Jan. 28 and will be followed by one devoted to Jean Paul Gaultier‘s collaborations with choreographer Régine Chopinot.