‘The King is Dead.’ So ran the March, 1972 headline in Women’s Wear Daily upon the death of the Spanish Master of Haute Couture, Cristóbal Balenciaga. Balenciaga, who was born in 1895, was a tremendous influence to great designers who followed: Chanel, Dior, Ungaro, Miyake.

‘Balanciaga alone,’ Coco Chanel said, ‘is a couturier in the truest sense of the word. Only he is capable of cutting material, assembling a creation and sewing it by hand. The others are simply fashion designers.’

‘Haute couture,’ Christian Dior agreed, ‘is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.’

Balenciaga developed his love for fashion from his mother, a high-end seamstress in Getaria, a Basque fishing village. After working as a tailor’s apprentice for Casa Gomez in San Sebastian, Cristóbal established the C. Balenciaga fashion house in 1917. By 1925, Infanta Isabel Alfonsa and Queen Maria Cristina were clients. After showing a last collection in Paris, Balenciaga retired in 1968.

Right now, The V&A – the Victoria & Albert Museum in London – is running a Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibit that will be on until February 18, 2018. This wasn’t a stop, digest and move on crowd. Students stood patiently by their outfit of choice, sketching out the details of Balenciaga’s pleats, folds and embroidery. Fashion-lovers stood in clumps, comparing Balenciaga’s original drawings to his final output. The well-heeled talked about similar Balenciagas they had seen or worn.

The V&A have included original drawings and design notes, letters from couture clients and historic magazine photos of Balenciaga’s work.

They have dresses rotating on plinths so you can admire them from all angles. We see how Balenciaga was inspired by Valencian dress and Flamenco dancing.

His Envelope Dress, here modelled by Alberta Tiburzi, was captured in a famous photo by Hiro Wakabayashi for Harper’s Bazaar.

The Victoria & Albert curators also encourage us to go inside the Master’s process with films of current artisans replicating his work and x-rays into the fine details and structure of some of his elaborate dresses. X-Ray artist Nick Veasey used his forensic techniques to reveal hoops, hair-combs, boning, dress weights and even forgotten hemming pins supporting Balenciaga’s work.

‘Elegance,’ Balanciaga said, ‘is elimination.’

Balanciaga @ The V&A

Written by Elizabeth Newton


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


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Elizabeth Newton

Elizabeth Newton