Through The Keyhole

50/50 London must see: the mysterious innovator who shaped fashion

The V&A Museum will open the first UK exhibition exploring the work and influence of the Spanish couture master Cristóbal Balenciaga this Saturday. ‘Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’ celebrates the centenary of the first fashion house opened by the designer (not hard to count – it was back in 1917), focusing as the curator Cassie Davies-Strodder said, ‘on 50’s and 60’s  – his most creative period.’

The collection contains around 100 pieces by Balenciaga and the designers who in their creations were and still are preserving his heritage – Molly Goddard, Oscar de la Renta, Emanuel Ungaro, Paco Rabanne. Who was Cristóbal  Balenciaga and how did he influence the fashion and its forms as we know them today?

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Silk taffeta dress, Paris, 1954

The young Cristóbal started developing a keen eye for fashion at the age of 11 while helping his seamstress mother who worked for the Spanish high society. He then joined a tailoring firm as an apprentice at the age of 12. How? One of the most influential noblewoman from his hometown of Getaria, Marquesa of Casa Torres, was so impressed by his talent that she sent him to Madrid where the boy was formally trained.

At the dawn of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the designer was forced to close his boutiques in Spain and move to Paris, where he opened his couture house on Avenue George V in 1937. Balenciaga shared the fashion stage with his contemporaries – Cristian Dior, Coco Chanel, yet evolving a unique approach to silhouettes and cuts – broadening the shoulders, sculpting box shapes and removing the emphasis on the waist, complimenting women’s bodies of different size and shape. The designer who was referred as ‘the Master’ by his staff, created immortal pieces as the balloon jacket, the cocoon coat, the Peacock tail dress, the semi-fitted suit, the tunic, the baby doll dress just to name a few.

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Balenciaga’s work still inspires contemporary designers

Not only his designs stood out from the fashion crowd. So did Balenciaga’s models who were holding a specific ‘title’ … ‘the monsters’. They were given strict instructions by the master Balenciaga himself, including no smiling and making eye contacts with the customers.

While his designs were called innovative and loud, Balenciaga avoided any attention and publicity. He was watching his shows behind a curtain and never came out to take a bow. The only journalist who was ever granted Cristóbal’s interview was Prudence Glyn from The Times back in 1971. She wrote: ‘In post-war fashion, Dior became a household word through the influence of the New Look, but for the purists there was only one proper direction in which to bow, Cristóbal Balenciaga’.

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Balenciaga in his office (C. Beaton archives)

While some of his elite clients included the Duchess of Windsor, Mona Bismarck (who locked herself away in her villa in Italy for three days while mourning the closure of his fashion house), Ava Gardner, Marella Agnelli, Balenciaga took the Air France in-flight coordinators under his wings. He designed their uniforms in 1968 before retiring from the fashion industry in the same year. The designer’s swan song was a wedding dress for the future Duchess of Cadiz, Maria del Carmen Martinez-Bordiu in 1972. He passed away 16 days after the wedding.

Although Balenciaga is long gone, his heritage – the variety of silhouettes, cuts, and the idea of celebrating women’s bodies while throwing a white glove to tiny wasp waists is very much alive, and still altering the industry. For generations to come.

‘Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’ is at the V&A from 27 May 2017 – 18 February 2018. 

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