I have found this review to be particularly difficult to write. Unlike the Dior exhibition I went to last year, I did not know much about Cristóbal himself or the history of the brand. All I recognised was the weird proportioned shapes that walk down the catwalk. Little did I know that such weird proportioned shapes were basis of the revolutionary ideas that defined Balenciaga’s career.
The exhibition in the V and A was clearly defined into sections: downstairs was the older pieces and an assembly of vintage Balenciaga garments, once you venture upstairs the legacy of his work was brought into the modern day. With quotes from contemporary designers such as Molly Goddard, it was clear to see how his designs still have influence today. ‘Balenciaga has been one of the greatest influences on fashion in the world.’ is a quote from Josep Font (the creative director of Delpozo). The thing that I found most interesting was the ways in which modern designers take inspiration from Balenciaga’s cutting edge designs; his use of the new technologies of the time is mirrored with modern day 3D printing, like the snake dress by Iris van Herpen. And his use of innovative fabrics and decorative techniques; complex embroidery techniques and layering can be seen in Balenciaga’s work including his ridiculously wonderful sequined evening coat (that I really wish I had got a picture of). His experimental techniques are shown in his student’s work from the 60s. This student was, of course, Givenchy. This immense attention to detail got him noticed and defined fashion as being an extremely highly skilled industry.
Balenciaga gained popularity by his extremely wealthy clients from the 1920s ish and later. These clients included aristocrats and Hollywood stars who steered away from conventional dressing. Then, it was not until after World War 1 did Balenciaga’s name become more widely known as he was battling against Dior’s New Look. Dior’s hourglass figure was so contrasting to what Balenciaga saw: his vision was women in sleek lines and very odd looking shapes for the time. This was highly revolutionary.
My favourite part of the exhibition was the x-rays. Balenciaga’s famous design, the affectionately known ‘La Tulipe’ evening dress, was revealed to conceal a fully boned corset beneath its ambiguous shape. But it is not just the hidden corsets, he was also incredible at pattern cutting to make the strangest of shapes; this is truly a difficult task and requires a lot of knowledge about the human figure. And of course, I cannot help but mention the showstopper Comme des Garçons garment – Kawakubo is my favourite designer after all – and it is so easy to see how Balenciaga’s construction techniques and disfiguring silhouettes have influenced her work.
I would like to thank the long dead Cristóbal for his contribution to fashion. It is strange to see how someone I knew little about has influenced the industry I love. Long live the strange shapes and difficult techniques that continue to inspire and amaze me in couture, and it’s all thanks to one man.
The exhibition is showing until 18th February: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/balenciaga-shaping-fashion