The Balenciaga exhibition at the V&A starts with some examples of his work inspired by his Spanish heritage. For any designer their own background and experience will always come through their work, to some extent. But Balenciaga, who may be the greatest ever designer in terms of technical skill and ground breaking design, is always a Spanish designer.
The display case includes several obviously Spanish items. Black lace, as found in the Mantilla, layered over cream silk looks stunning. Beige lace, thickly encrusted with red florets, bows, lace work and heavy embellishment. And a stunning flamenco style dress from 1961, sit alongside matador jackets offset by a series of hats which have come from the bullring, the street dancers, the church and the agricultural worker. Balenciaga, as a result of the Spanish civil war, came to Paris where he set up his business in 1937. Maybe the dislocation intensified his affection for the styles of Spain, but I think Spain has a richer cultural tradition than most of Europe and these influences come through very markedly in nearly everything that he designed. Oscar de la Renta, who began his career as Balenciaga’s apprentice claimed that “even after his success in Paris, he remained very deeply influenced by the culture and folklore from Spain, from the religious to the gypsies, flamencos and bullfighters.” The highly stylised shapes and sumptuous fabrics that characterise Cristóbal Balenciaga’s work, sprang from traditional Spanish costumes.
These dresses are so beautiful, radical and absolutely different to the fashions of the day. His approach was truly original and ground breaking.
From the world of Spanish art Balenciaga is influenced by Goya’s portrait of the Duchess of Alba in a head enveloping black lace mantilla to create the amazing black silk gazar outfit known as a “chou” wrap, dependent on the stiffness of silk gazar, while the evening dress is made from fluid black silk crepe.
Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”, one of the greatest portraits of all time, and worked on by everyone from Picasso to Francis Bacon, influences Balenciaga’s ivory silk satin “Infanta” evening dress with scrolls of black velvet along the neckline and waist, and accentuated fullness over the hips, supported with panniers or padded hip under structures. The dress has a long metal zip up the centre back.
Other influences from life include religious vestments and robes he saw up close – his uncle was a priest and he was an altar boy. At the V&A there is ample opportunity to actually study how these enormous, voluminous garments were designed and worn. I really found this part of the exhibition very exciting and interesting as the modern toiles and diagrams reveal how the garments are designed, cut and constructed. These stiff shapes are held away from the body so that the underlying body shape is both disguised and enhanced. They also have the effect of making the wearer look vulnerable and ethereal.
Although the exhibition includes just the one black reimagined cardinal’s chasuble, this idea is repeated again and again in Balenciaga’s work – as a regal violet velvet evening coat with a huge shawl collar; as a black coat with an enormous cape which makes Lucky, the model, appear to be a tiny, elphin head (topped with a confection); now as a huge, orange evening coat with a huge statement collar, set off by delicate black accessories. Do the ladies in the fashion show look with interest, envy or shock?
Likewise, the amazing catwalk of perfect black dresses in the V&A cabinet, each one unique and each one challenging existing trends – he made one each year – are inspired by the black clothes that became a uniform for the widowed women of the Basque country.
On both visits to the exhibition it struck me that Balenciaga is not as well known as many modern designers who may be marketing geniuses, but are not great craftsmen/ women, with limited design imaginations. Balenciaga shunned publicity and never gave interviews. His breath-takingly original work was appreciated mainly by very wealthy European women, but his name is not known in many households. This exhibition is the beginning of a fight back. In researching the article I found countless examples of the most exquisite designs, season after season, unique novel, inventions over a long and very productive life. I loved the V&A McQueen exhibition and really think he had a very special talent – but the V&A – aware of the bankability of the fairly recently deceased designer – spread his much more limited work over several galleries. The Balenciaga is crammed into a small space and I feel it needs to be bigger, with space to breathe. And more examples. Perhaps this is a task for the Spanish – a blockbuster exhibition with several more items borrowed from galleries all over the world.
I must end with a question. How far do you design or make items that stem from your own national or local or cultural roots? As an English person from the Lancashire cotton mills, with Scottish blood I find myself continually attracted to both wool and cotton, to tartan, to tweed, corduroy, to soft heathery colours and English summer florals. I like the English designers and the royal outfits. Do you connect with your own heritage and does this come through in your dressmaking?