Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion (V&A, London)

Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972) was a Spanish Basque fashion designer and the founder of the Balenciaga fashion house. He was one of the most innovative designers of the twentieth century, and his use of fabric and his skills as a master tailor ensured that when he died people mourned “The King is Dead.” He was an inventive pioneer of fashion, transforming the female silhouette with highly sculptural designs, and removing nipped in waistlines with his tunic dresses and kimono style coats.

This exhibition at the V&A explores his work, and the influences he has on other designers such as Issy Miyake, Iris Van Herpen and Paco Rabanne. Walking around this exhibition, it is hard to imagine women of the 1950’s and 60’s wearing such apparel, such was his futuristic vision. Single seamed coats, dresses which were tied to the legs to add additional volume to an already ballooning hemline, and exquisite embroidery were the hallmarks of Balenciaga’s fame. On walking into the exhibition, you are treated to a bright green cape and dress ensemble which looks like a stack of pompoms. These were the clothes of the adventurous woman, a woman confident in her own skin.

Short films around the exhibition show the skills required for the hand embroidery that adorn his dresses, and show the extent of his attention to pattern design and how skilled he was in sculpting garments. He was more of an architect than a designer, taking new fabrics and seeing how he could manipulate them into shapes to celebrate the female form in an unconventional manner.

His haute couture gowns have been x-rayed by the V&A, unearthing secrets about how his “fluid” designs were actually moulded on stiff corsets, and how his simple designs were really very complex. Videos from Balenciaga’s salon in the 1950's give a rare insight into another world, where glamorous models twirl and show off their gowns, holding numbered cards so clients know what they need to order!

It is a wonderful collection and his work lives on as he continues to influence designers worldwide. Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is on at the V&A London until 18th February 2018. Advance booking is advisable; tickets cost £12 although there are concessions available.