Today, the most glamorous names in fashion – from Chanel to Dior – appear peerless. But once upon a time, these heroes and heroines had their own role models, and at the top of the pyramid shone one name: Cristóbal Balenciaga. To Dior, he was “the master”; “my religion” to his protégé, Givenchy; “a couturier in the truest sense of the word”, according to Coco Chanel. But the godfather of fashion has in many ways been eclipsed by later, louder and sexier brands. Here, we take a look at the V&A’s new Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition, and talk to its curator, Cassie Davies-Strodder, who hopes to throw the spotlight back on this Basque fashion genius.
Why do you think the couturier is still held in such high regard?
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Balenciaga is flattered everywhere. His minimalism can be seen in the works of top names, from J. W. Anderson to Phoebe Philo. Echoes of his efforts involved in abstracting the body are discernible on catwalks the world over. His innovation in materials is continued by designers like Simone Rocha. Perhaps most famously, his refusal to accept anything less than perfection is there in the cerebral work of designers like Dries van Noten.
Balenciaga is loved by those who adore purism – does the V&A exhibition reflect this?
Yes, the purism came from his refusal to adopt the hour-glass shapes of Dior, which dominated the 1950s. This exhibition is full of the modern shapes (like the famous “Envelope Dress”) he introduced. These include the iconic sack dress, tunic and barrel line that we still associate with him.
Can some of his popularity be attributed to the fact that Balenciaga remained an enigma?
He was a very private person – the opposite of a big showman like McQueen. However, most knew that even whilst he represented the pinnacle of haute couture in Paris, he was born to a seamstress, who apprenticed to a tailor, before setting up his own fashion label, EISA, in 1917. Nevertheless, everything from his serious and intimidating salon, to his treatment of the press, added an air of mystique that contributed to his popularity.
New shapes aside, how would you explain the adoration he received from some of the younger designers?
Lots of designers have become used to sketching their creations and learning one or two skills that can help them realise their ideas, before handing their designs over to a workshop. Balenciaga, however, could do everything himself from cutting to draping to the highest possible standard.
Where does that leave the Balenciaga brand today?
The latest collection from its Creative Director, Demna Gvasalia, is an impressively literal interpretation of Balenciaga. He is good at making sure projects are minimal without being flat, and edgy without being gimmicky. We’ve drawn parallels between Balenciaga and Gvaslaia in terms of their willingness to question the fashion system, and their pioneering attitude.
What about London, have any of its designers taken on Balenciaga’s baton?
Anywhere you see beauty mixed with a kind of weirdness, you see the stamp of Balenciaga. I call it weirdness, but I mean an abstract quality, which has its own structure and beauty, yet is anything but conventionally beautiful.