Cristobal Balenciaga (1985 – 1972) was one of the most respected designers of the XX century. He founded the Balenciaga fashion house in 1919 and became one of the most important and influential designers of the XX century. His clothes were defined by an almost sculptural quality, ingenious manipulation of fabrics and dramatic use of colour and textures. His contemporaries called him the Master.
A hundred years after Balenciaga set up his first dress workshop in northern Spain, an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London shows what made his work so remarkable and how he continues to shape the fashion world of today. Based on the museum’s vast collection of Balenciaga dresses from the 50s and 60s, the exhibition explores his craftsmanship, his studios and experiences of his clients, as well as over 100 clothing items.
Also, works from later stages of his career, as well as those made by designers he had influenced, such as Molly Goddard, Rei Kawakubo, Roksanda Ilinčić.
Coco Chanel once said that Balenciaga was the only couturier in the truest sense of the word, and he was most known for his unmistakable constructions, which was emphasized in this exhibition by a series of X-rays of his dresses. It is interesting that 70% of the exhibited pieces belonged to the museum’s collection. Still, there are a couple of significant loaned items, such as a dress designed in 1961 made of silk gazar. The green dress consists of three balloon-like shapes, and it is one of the first items on display when you enter the exhibition. It was put there because it shows the essence of Balenciaga’s ideas.
Also on display are pieces from the very end of his career, just before he closed his boutique, a period when the fashion press began doubting him because new haute couture designers, like Yves Saint Laurent came to the scene. The “Four Corners” dress, which made the silhouette completely abstract, shows what a revolutionary he had been at the time. Only two or three of these dresses were ever made, and at least one had to be returned because the customer could not understand how to use the toilet in this dress.
Cut and construction
His tailoring experience set the high standard in studios that manufactured his clothes. He insisted on perfection, and the sleeves were his obsession. Balenciaga believed they were the basis of a good dress.
When the sleeves weren’t good enough he would yell in Spanish “La manga” (sleeves) before destroying the piece and starting a new one.
A well designed Balenciaga dress became the inescapable part of female wardrobe. He introduced a more casual “easy line”, three-quartered sleeves and standing collar, ideal for exposing a string of pearls. In the 60s he introduced innovative pattern cutting which he achieved by careful draping of patterns and specific cutting of fabrics.
Working with fabrics
Most designers begin with a sketch and then look for fabrics. Balenciaga began with the fabrics and worked “around” them. “It is the fabric that decides”, he used to say. He enjoyed the choice and quality of fabrics available in Paris and made close business ties with many suppliers of luxury textiles and accessories.
Despite government subsidies for those buying French textiles, Balenciaga chose to buy from suppliers from Italy, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. He was known as a shrewd and informed client, open for experiments and new breakthroughs.