Things are really starting to shape up now, aren’t they? Balloon sleeves, paper-bag waists, shoulders sharp enough to poke your eye out. They say that the look of a decade is always defined by the 6th year and now it’s pulling into fine focus. I think this decade will be defined by volume. Playing with exaggerated proportions; sleeves that hang around your knees, trousers that pool on the floor and coats that look as if they could double as a life-raft. It might feel a little uneasy seeing your silhouette resemble that of an American footballer but it’s exciting too. And not for the first time this change has been championed by the luxury fashion house, Balenciaga.
The V&As current exhibition Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is small, but it's content is large. Charting Cristobal Balenciaga’s life’s oeuvre from opening his first boutique in 1919 to his rise as acclaimed couturier, “master of us all” described by Coco Chanel no less, and beyond. His dedication to tailoring, form, craftsmanship, fabric and colour is delicately displayed. The glass boxes encase some of his most seminal pieces; his 1954 wool skirt suit, 1 piece cocoon coat, balloon jacket and the chemise dress. They still appear so contemporary, I can’t imagine the reaction his gowns had at the time. Often with their equally stunning matching accessories. His personal touch with his clients and attention to detail is evident through fabric swatches and sketches, patterns and toiles. Technicolour videos give you a glimpse of a couture Parisian salon in his 60s heydays.
I particularly enjoyed the more interactive elements (no, I’m not a child, but who doesn’t like moving stuff or things to play with?). Try making his 1 piece cocoon coat for yourself with an A4 sheet below. Or watch Nick Veasey's 360* x-rays enabling us to understand the magic that was holding these gowns up. The infamous balloon skirt was replicated for you to try on and take pictures/selfies with #balenciagastyle It may be just a gimmick but I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to not worry about taking pictures in a gallery.
I couture you not
The biggest surprise for me was that although he is regarded as king of couture, Balenciaga was not officially a couture house. He cared little for establishment or press. Moving his collection show schedule to suit himself for fear of copycats (I’m not sure what he would make of today’s live streaming). The term haute couture may only be used by fashion houses that meet certain standards set by The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne. Balenciaga defiantly rejected those rules and the bourgeoisie status of the federation, and, thus, was never a member. Quelle horror!
Timing is everything
Throughout history the things that have caused the biggest impact have been an incredible collision of need and want, desirable before we even know it. True artists are able to pitch the perfect piece, perfectly timed. They sense change in air, are able to visually articulate what we are unable to see for ourselves. Never too outlandish that it’s incomprehensible but not too safe that you have seen it before. Like balancing on a needle. What exactly does it take to capture the moment and present it perfectly, formed so that the worlds press and consumers gaze falls upon you? Whatever it is, Balenciaga had it. And even more impressively, he was able to continue doing it. As editor Diana Vreeland said, 'For 20 years he was the prophet of nearly every major change in silhouette.' No mean feat.
Shaping the future
Balenciaga post Cristobal (he closed the house in 1968 before his death in 1972) is displayed upstairs. His influence is clear to see in the designs of his protégés, Givenchy, Courreges, Oscar de la Renta and Ungaro all echo his ethos of simplicity and elegance in form. Along with those who have held his seat at the head of the house since 1986 when it was reopened. Nicolas Ghesquiere’s suit from the Fall 2006 show was fantastic to see. I remember the impact it had at the time, it hadn’t occurred to me the homage he has paying to his founder though through this exhibition, it's obvious how literal his interpretations were. Ghesquiere had a good run to re-establish the house as the luxury label we know today but I think no-one has been so close to Balenciaga’s original vision as the current creative director, Demna Gvasalia.
From the moment those platform boots stomped down the runway a new era of Balenciaga ensued. At first look, it was completely radical, such exaggerated proportions and silhouette hadn’t been seen on the catwalk for years. Mixing sculpted tailoring and sportswear. 80s looking performance jackets styled with diamantes. Voluminous dresses in distasteful florals worn with thigh high boots. Highly unexpected for Balenciaga! I loved it. The fashion world also gave a standing ovation.
This AW16 show, and every one since, continued to place Balenciaga as the most influential brand. Gvasalia is very much cut from the same cloth as Balenciaga. He has the gift. What’s even more impressive is how he’s used Balenciaga’s original works and reinterpreted them. I hadn’t noticed until the now that the wool suit in this first show is the reinvention of Cristobal’s for 2017; the dresses for 2018, worn with the bold legs, look so like his 60’s creations; and those ski jackets were cut to stand off the shoulder revealing a long neck just as Balenciaga once did.
If Balenciaga was king of couture, Gvasalia is king of the streets. Balenciaga’s original visionary approach is much alive in the house this century as it was last, if not his traditional couture methods. Gvasalia might be bringing the underground to this historic luxury fashion house but he is shaping our decade in exactly the same way.
Balenciaga: Shaping fashion is on at the V&A until February 2018 - plenty of time to see it!