By  on May 18, 2007

NEW YORK — Cristóbal Balenciaga was born 16 years after Paul Poiret and in another country, but the elder's influence on the other can't be denied.

That was the view presented by the Costume Institute's Harold Koda after leading a group through "Poiret: King of Fashion," the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that he co-curated. Balenciaga's current designer, Nicolas Ghesquière, was not convinced, but said the show left an impression on him.

"I will definitely be [influenced] and I'm sure I won't be the only one. You look at this incredible work he did. It's a real luxury to see the fabric. It was really fascinating to go through the collection," he said, noting how Poiret used ethnic elements, which made him among the first global couturiers.

Ghesquière speculated that Balenciaga and Poiret may have shared a similar joy in making clothes, but the similarities seemed to stop there for him. The same could not be said for Koda, who spelled out a comprehensive theory: Both designers were able to make a garment from one piece of cloth, with Balenciaga taking a highly studied approach, and Poiret drawing from a certain design naïveté, he said.

Koda was swift to point out that his argument is one the house of Balenciaga does not really embrace, but that did not inhibit him from further explanation. "It's known in psychiatry circles that people who are bipolar see affinities where they don't exist. I had my bipolar moment when I was looking at Myra Walker's Balenciaga exhibition in Dallas and I kept seeing Poiret."

Koda noted Balenciaga's formative years were spent in San Sebastian, Spain, "under the shadow of the greatest couturier at the turn of the century." Koda asked, "How can you be the son of a fisherman living in a little fishing village, be gay, be an artist and not like Paul Poiret?"

Balenciaga and Poiret both favored opulent colors and were proponents of boots, trousers and cocoon coats, Koda said. He also challenged a Balenciaga obituary that credited the designer for creating the sack, the chemise and the sheath, claiming that Poiret had beaten him on all three fronts. The idea of the tunic was anticipated by Poiret and later refined by Balenciaga in the Fifties, Koda said.Ghesquière's eagle eye caught the "Made in France" detailing that Poiret incorporated into the sleeve of a jacket on display. Koda said that even he, who had spent months researching, cataloguing and studying the Poiret garments, had missed that. But, while passing through the gallery, Ghesquière spotted it immediately and casually told Koda, "Isn't that interesting how he…"

With that holographic-type detail, "clearly Poiret was marketing the originality of French style," Koda said. Poiret also came up with another first in honor of the over-the-top "Thousand and Second Night" party he and his wife, Denise, threw in 1911 for 300 guests. Aside from enforcing a dress code of oriental costumes (and making those whose appearance fell short change into Poiret-designed Persian outfits or leave), he sent each of them home with a bottle of his Rosine fragrance — what Koda called "the first gift bag."

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