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Celebrating the legacy of Balenciaga

London takes on the great designer with a comprehensive showcase of the eponymous fashion house’s collections through the years.

Evening dress, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1962. photo: cecil beaton, 1971 © Cecil Beaton Studio Archive st Sotheby’s.

Evening dress, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1962. photo: cecil beaton, 1971 © Cecil Beaton Studio Archive st Sotheby’s.

Model wearing Balenciaga orange coat as I. Magnin buyers inspect a dinner outfit in the background, Paris, France, 1954 © Mark Shaw, mptvimages.comModel wearing Balenciaga orange coat as I. Magnin buyers inspect a dinner outfit in the background, Paris, France, 1954 © Mark Shaw, mptvimages.com

This May, the Victoria & Albert in London will open the first ever UK exhibition exploring the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga and his profound and continuing influence on modern fashion. It will be the first of its kind to look at his unique approach to fashion making and will showcase pieces by his protégés and contemporary designers working in the same innovative way today.

The exhibition marks the centenary of the opening of Balenciaga’s first fashion house in San Sebastian and the 80th anniversary of the opening of his famous fashion house.

Rather than a retrospective, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion will focus in detail on the latter part of Balenciaga’s long career in the 1950s and 1960s, arguably one of his most creative periods as ‘the master’ of haute couture.

It was during these years that he not only dressed some of the most iconic women of the time, but also introduced revolutionary shapes, including the tunic, the sack, baby doll and shift dress – all of which remain style staples today.

Evening dress, silk taffeta, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1955 © Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonEvening dress, silk taffeta, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1955 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Highlights will include ensembles made by Balenciaga for Holly­wood actress Ava Gardner, dresses and hats belonging to socialite and 1960s fashion icon Gloria Guinness, and pieces worn by one of the world’s wealthiest women, Mona von Bismarck, who commissioned everything from ball-gowns to gardening shorts from the couturier.

On display will be over 100 garments and 20 hats, many of which have never been on public display before. These will be accompanied by archive sketches, patterns, photographs, fabric samples and catwalk footage revealing Balenciaga’s uncompromising creativity. In addition, X-rays, animated patterns and short films on couture-making processes will uncover the hidden details that made his work so exceptional.

The exhibition will draw mostly on the Victoria & Albert’s fashion holdings – the largest collection of Balenciaga in the UK. The collection was initiated for the museum by Cecil Beaton in the 1970s.

The exhibition marks the centenary of the opening of Balenciaga’s first fashion house in San Sebastian and the 80th anniversary of the opening of his famous fashion house

Exhibition curator Cassie Davies-Strodder said: “Cristóbal Balenciaga was one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century.

Revered by his contemporaries, including Coco Chanel and Hubert de Givenchy, his exquisite craftsmanship, pioneering use of fabric and innovative cutting set the tone for the modernity of the late 20th century fashion.

'Baby doll' cocktail dress, crêpe de chine, lace and satin, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1958 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London'Baby doll' cocktail dress, crêpe de chine, lace and satin, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1958 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“At the height of his success in the 1950s when Christian Dior’s New Look was the dominant force in fashion, Balenciaga went against the grain to revolutionise the female silhouette, creating a more modern, architectural aesthetic that stood away from the body rather than restricting it.

“For the first time, this exhibition will take a forensic look at Balenciaga’s most iconic ensembles from the Victoria & Albert’s collections, to reveal what made his designs so exceptional.

His lasting impact on fashion will be explored through the work of those who trained with him and through recent garments by designers, including Molly Goddard, Demna Gvasalia and J.W. Anderson, who reflect the legacy of his vision today.”

Two unique collaborations have helped the museum to reveal the secrets of Balenciaga’s ingenuity, and will feature in the exhibition. For the first time the Victoria & Albert has used X-ray techno­logy to take a forensic look at the hidden details inside Cristóbal Balenciaga’s garments.

Cristóbal Balenciaga at work, Paris, 1968. Photograph Henri Cartier-Bresson © Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum PhotosCristóbal Balenciaga at work, Paris, 1968. Photograph Henri Cartier-Bresson © Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Photos

These X-rays, produced by X-ray artist Nick Veasey, show structures invisible to the naked eye, including dress weights strategically placed to determine the exact hang of the skirt in one of Balenciaga’s most minimal designs, and boning in dress bodices, dispelling the myth that he did not use such structures.

In partnership with the London College of Fashion, pattern-cutting students have taken patterns from some of the most iconic Balenciaga garments in the collection.

These have been digitised and animated to show how these building blocks come together to form the finished piece. In a number of cases, the patterns reveal that the main body of the garment has been crafted from one single piece of fabric, demonstrating Balenciaga’s mastery of materials. Three of these animations will be displayed alongside Balenciaga’s original garments to give a deeper understanding of each.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion will be organised around three main sections: ‘Front of House’, including Balenciaga’s salons; behind the scenes in Balenciaga’s ‘Workrooms’, and the lasting impact of Balenciaga’s Legacy’.

The Balenciaga brand still references its founder today, yet his influence spreads far wider.

The ‘Legacy’ section will feature the work of over 30 designers of the last 50 years tracing the influence of this most revered figure in fashion right up to the present day. Themes include an exploration of his minimalist aesthetic reflected in the work of his former apprentices André Courrèges and Emanuel Ungaro, and more recently revived by designers such as Phoebe Philo for Celine and in the strong lines of J.W. Anderson. Balenciaga’s perfectionism and attention to detail are reflected in the work of Hubert de Givenchy and Erdem.

His pattern cutting and explorations of volume can be seen in the work of Molly Goddard and Demna Gvasalia, while his creative use of new materials is referenced in the work of former Balenciaga creative director Nicolas Ghesquière.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion opens on May 27 and will be accompanied by a new V&A publication and a series of related events, courses and creative workshops.

Dovima with Sacha, cloche and suit by Balenciaga, Café des Deux Magots, Paris, 1955. Photo: Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon FoundationDovima with Sacha, cloche and suit by Balenciaga, Café des Deux Magots, Paris, 1955. Photo: Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation

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