LONDON — “I use his way of looking at things 360-degrees,” said Demna Gvasalia of Cristóbal Balenciaga on the eve of a major show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The show, which takes an intimate look at aspects of Balenciaga’s work, ranging from his signature shapes to his intricate process of constructing garments and his client relationships, runs from May 27 to Feb. 18.
“Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion” is the first major U.K. show dedicated to the Spanish designer who, despite his great talent, was one of fashion’s quiet ones.
“What’s so frustrating about Balenciaga is that his voice is nowhere. He only ever did one interview, so you don’t get him talking about his clothes. Because of that, there’s a lot of mythology around him,” said the show’s curator Cassie Davies-Strodder. She said the designer’s private personality prevented him from promoting himself. It was his work that did the talking. “When you see it closely, you can understand he was a real perfectionist.”
The exhibition is staged at an intimate, smaller space within the museum. “With someone like [Alexanderr] McQueen, we needed a big stage to explore his showmanship. Balenciaga was a far more considered designer. His work is much more about the details and looking into it closer. We felt a smaller space would be more appropriate for that,” said Davies-Strodder.
The exhibition highlights Balenciaga’s perfectionist approach by showing off his impressive construction techniques. A draped dress from 1967 was made from a single fabric joined at the center back, with no side seams. The museum has also collaborated with X-ray artist Nick Veasey, who produced scans of the garments to show their inner constructions. The X-ray also reveals the weights that Balenciaga used to ensure the dress fell perfectly.
Sleeves were another obsession of the couturier, and one of the most important parts of his legacy. “What’s really dominant is the lantern sleeve, I see it in every high-street store,” said Davies-Strodder. Balenciaga was often heard shouting “la manga!” — Spanish for sleeve — in his workshop when the construction of the piece wasn’t perfect. One of the highlights is a simple kimono, with exaggerated, folded sleeves created with an inner cord invisible to the eye.
Design students from London College of Fashion collaborated with the museum, re-creating the patterns of the dresses that are on display alongside the original pieces to highlight additional details in the construction.
Davies-Strodder said the show is focused on the Fifties and Sixties, which she believes were Balenciaga’s “most creative” years, and the most prominent period in the V&A’s private collection of his garments. Top displays include the baby-doll dress that simultaneously reveals and conceals the body; the sack dress that stirred controversy for being unsexy, and radically different to the popular hourglass silhouette pioneered by Balenciaga’s rival Christian Dior, and the envelope dress he designed shortly before he retired in 1967, confirming his impact on the decade.
Davies-Strodder wanted to add a contemporary element to the show, which is why the upstairs section is dedicated to exploring Balenciaga’s legacy through a selection of pieces from designers influenced by the couturier. That part of the show is introduced with an excerpt from Women’s Wear Daily in 1972, following Balenciaga’s death: “Cristóbal Balenciaga, the father of contemporary fashion is dead, but his influence remains.”
The range of designers included in the “Legacy” section of the show points to the designer’s enduring influence. There are minimalist designs by Phoebe Philo, J.W. Anderson, Rick Owens and Calvin Klein, that latter of whom explored mass-produced minimalism in the Nineties.
An exaggerated pink ruffled coat by Rei Kawakubo echoes Balenciaga’s experiments with oversized shapes, while an intricately embroidered gown by Hubert de Givenchy, a student of the couturier’s, reflects the deep thought that went into so many of Balenciaga’s designs. “If you use flowers, then place the flowers in an intellectual manner,” were the designer’s words to Givenchy.
“We realized that there are designers who do sportswear and men’s wear who are still inspired by him,” said the curator. “They might not necessarily be imitating his process, they are not using a couture approach, but they are using his vision. It’s more about the feel of a garment rather than the specific design.”
Video content and quotes from designers are scattered all over the walls, and highlight how designers draw inspiration from Balenciaga’s work. “For me, Balenciaga created perfection in simplicity,” said Gareth Pugh.