Balenciaga: Fashion genius

A retrospective in London of his magical designs

Header Image: Dovima with Sacha, cloche and suit by Balenciaga, Café des Deux Magots, Paris, 1955. Photograph by Richard Avedon. Landing page image: The Victoria & Albert Museum in collaboration with Nick Veasey, photographer and x-ray artist

BY: Claire Connors

A retrospective of the work and legacy of Cristobal Balenciaga, the most influential clothing designer in the 20th Century, is dressing up the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and we couldn’t be more delighted. Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, marks the centenary of the opening of his first fashion house in San Sebastián, Spain, and the 80th anniversary of his Paris debut. Over 100 of his phenomenal pieces, along with examples from the modern designers and fashion students whom he still inspires, are on display through February 2018.

Born in the Basque region of Spain to a seamstress mother, Balenciaga began apprenticing for a tailor when he was 12, learning the complicated details of cutting, draping, and construction. Inspired by the local “color” of his birthplace, many of his extravagant designs were direct descendants of the glorious traditional costumes of his region at the turn of the century, such as bullfighters, flamenco dancers, fishermen, royalty, and the Catholic clergy.

The true “master of couture,” as he was known, Balenciaga was an inventive genius when it came to creating his sculptural pieces. Made with unusual, stiff fabrics that were heavily manipulated with whale boning, weights, and flawless seams, he created modern shapes no one had every seen before. His work was so original, many of his well-known silhouettes–the high-wasted baby doll dress, the cocoon coat, and the chemise—are seen on runways today by designers like Armani, Prada, Westwood, Lanvin, and Jil Sander.

One design mystery the museum solves beautifully, is the secret behind the complicated underpinnings of a Balenciaga garment. In a brilliant forensic investigation move worthy of a British procedural, many of his dresses and hats were X-Rayed by artist Nick Veasey and those ghostlike images are also on display, showing just how intricate a Balenciaga design truly is.

If you’re not planning a trip to London in the next six months, watch these fascinating videos prepared by the V&A Museum around the exhibition. They’re almost as good as being there.