Why Cristóbal Balenciaga Is the Father of Avant-garde Fashion

Sack dresses, X-rays and anonymity are not normally associated with the revered fashion house that is Balenciaga. A new exhibition at the V&A reveals the designer's stranger and more revolutionary side

Photo by Richard Avedon. Dovima wearing Cristobal Balenciaga, 1950

Christian Dior once said that “haute couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga.” Conduct haute couture he did, with half of the exhibition dedicated solely to his legacy and influence. The primary takeaway from the wondrous show – “Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion” is that Cristóbal Balenciaga quite literally shaped the face of fashion since the inception of his French luxury house in the beginning of the 20th century.

Mr Balenciaga shied away from the press throughout his career, famously giving only one interview to the Times in 1971, one year before his death. The show is the first one ever to be dedicated to the designer in the UK, so it is a rare opportunity to gain insight into the Spaniard’s elusive life. The exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of his first fashion house in San Sebastian.

Scroll down to learn about Balenciaga’s lessons on craftsmanship, clientele and influence:

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Construction and Craftmanship

Cristóbal Balenciaga was a perfectionist who succeeded at high-end tailoring and cutting never-before-seen shapes in women’s fashion such as the balloon hem, envelope dress and the revolutionary sack dress. His obsession with three-quarter length sleeves and the stand-away collar is still visible in a variety of designs on the runway today. Demna Gvasalia of Balenciaga took Cristóbal’s stand-away collar concept to new extremes with his incredible oversized blue shell parka from his Autumn 2016 ready-to-wear collection, shown above. A number of X-rays created by Nick Veasey in the exhibition highlight the painstaking process Balenciaga went through with weights to ensure that garments fell in the correct sculptural way. Take a look at the video below to discover more about the process.

“For twenty years he was the prophet of nearly every major change in silhouette.” – Diana Vreeland

Photo by Richard Avedon. Dovima in cloche and suit by Balenciaga, 1955

Importance of the Clientele

Balenciaga’s infamous clientele of the 20th century accounts for the fashion house’s highly glamorous reputation that it still maintains today. The House of Balenciaga at 10 Avenue George V in the late 1930s was the most exclusive and expensive couture establishment in Paris, attracting the best-dressed and wealthiest women from around the world. Prestigious clients such as writer Pauline de Rothschild and fashion icon Mona von Bismarck are paid particular attention to during the exhibition. Balenciaga’s salon shows contained between 150 and 200 looks and lasted up to an hour and a half, giving the wealthy clientele plenty of pieces to choose from.

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“I don’t think even the Bible has taught me as much as Balenciaga.” – Hubert de Givenchy

Photo by Nick Knight, Styling by Katie Shillingford. From AnOther Magazine

Balenciaga’s Omnipresent Influence

The entire second floor of the exhibition is solely dedicated to Balenciaga’s enduring and widespread influence on designers ranging from Molly Goddard all the way through to the more unlikely Calvin Klein. Look out for the extraordinary pink sculptural dress by Comme des Garçons which British fashion photographer Nick Knight recently shot for AnOther Magazine above. Like Balenciaga, Rei Kawakubo extensively explores the the concept of “ma” (the idea of void/volume around the body) in her architectural garments. Although the selection of designers in Balenciaga’s “Legacy” section by curator Cassie Davies-Strodder can at times feel a little vague, the floor certainly makes for an exciting and contemporary spectacle.

“Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion” runs at the V&A in London until 18 February 2018

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