A couple of weeks ago I made it to the Victoria and Albert Museum, perhaps one of the most wonderful art institutions in the county, to enter an entirely different dimension with the Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition.
Shit, I can’t believe I have just produced a completely serious, grown up sentence- that’s what Sundays at home do to me! Anyway, I experienced the exhibition and the only reason I am producing a post about it is that you should do it too.
To say ‘it’s epic’ would be an understatement, but then, what could we expect from the event featuring masterpieces of one of the most influential figures in contemporary fashion?!
Dior called him ‘the master of us all’, Givenchy claimed: ’I don’t think even the Bible has taught me as much as Balenciaga’, Diana Vreeland named him as a ‘prophet of nearly every major change in silhouette’ and Chanel said Balenciaga was the only couturier ‘in the truest sense of this world’- if this doesn’t convince you to book the tickets, I don’t know what will!
Cristóbal Balenciaga was born in a fishing village in the Basque Country in 1885 and was lucky to have a seamstress as a mother. Probably under her influence he started taking sewing lessons at the age of only 12 which truly is beyond my imagination. The knowledge of cutting, tailoring and dressmaking together with his exceptional designing skills set Balenciaga apart from other couturiers and led to opening his first fashion house in Spain when he was twenty flipping two! *sigh*
The Civil War in Spain forced the master to move to France, which is where all the fairytale (aka huge international success) began.
His fashion house on 10 Avenue George V was one of the most luxurious and expensive couture houses in Paris, where Balenciaga worked with over 500 (!!!) cutters, seamstresses and fitters to prepare between 150 and 200 looks in each of his collections.
He was a perfectionist, the master of cut and construction, famously giving his pieces abstract, architectural forms, happily violating the major rules of haute couture. If you look at his amazing garments, they often look more like wonderful sculptures than pieces of clothing and it’s what makes them absolutely mesmerising. Needless to say, stepping into Balenciaga’s world of shapes, cuts and colours is very much Alice in Wonderland kind of experience.
By introducing looser fits, broader shoulders, 3/4 length sleeves and stand away collars as well as removing the waist, Balenciaga completely revolutionised the female silhouette.
Balenciaga’s creations were worn by royals and aristocrats; the wealthiest women in the world often put their own safety at risk to travel to Paris during WWII for each of 3 fittings required before getting a couture piece of their dreams.
Those who couldn’t afford Balenciaga, were often buying from Eisa- a Spain-based sister label owned by the master. Labour and fabric costs in Spain were much lower, materials were sourced locally and there were Balenciaga’s extended family members employed in the company which all contributed to an overall price difference of even 50%- very tempting indeed!
Another alternative was buying from high-end department stores like Harrods or Bloomingdales which were licensed to copy Balenciaga. Because there were no limitations in the amount of copies they could make, buying the licence was much more pricey than to buy the actual piece.
If Harrods was too far from home, you could always ask your local seamstress to make a copy for you too. The age, background or social status didn’t really matter- everyone wanted a piece of Balenciaga.
Today we live in the whole new era where getting a catwalk-inspired piece costs us as much effort as one click on Zara’s website. The next morning a smiley courier, handling a familiar looking parcel wishes us a nice day and disappears leaving us with our statement pieces. Isn’t that great- all so simple, so quick, so affordable! Except, we all look the same.