The past and the future of Balenciaga meet in Beijing as Alexander Wang conducts a dialogue between his work and Cristóbal’s iconic creations.
From the very first look he showed at Balenciaga, it was evident that Alexander Wang’s tenure as creative director would be highly reverent of the spirit of the founder. Cristóbal Balenciaga was an experimental perfectionist and a master of construction – apparent in his recurring use of certain elements that are now seen as his signatures. Who else could do a three-quarter sleeve, a stand-away collar, or a cocoon shape like Cristóbal did? Few have come close to matching the precision of his cuts or the way he’d make voluminous taffeta gowns almost weightless.
In a move that was a first for the brand, Wang opened up the archives that have so greatly influenced him, personally selecting more than 40 looks spanning Cristóbal’s entire career to stage Balenciaga China Edition. In a specially erected space in the middle of the Chinese Academy of Oil Painting, the clothes were split into three groups – daywear, cocktail, and eveningwear – and exhibited with mirrors behind them. This was crucial because a Balenciaga dress could be deceptively simple in the front but in the back, there would be a gorgeously draped cowl, exposing inches of skin, or a stiff cape that stands elegantly.
At the far end of the hall stood four of Cristóbal’s most famous pieces, known even to those removed from fashion circles. There was the 1939 Infante dress, inspired by the portraits of Velázquez from his native Spain; the 1958 Baby Doll
dress, which carried its entire weight on the shoulders, leaving the body completely free underneath; the Gazar Bolero dress, a masterpiece he concocted late in his career, silencing his critics; and the 1967 Wedding dress, a majestically austere piece that featured only three seams.
Taking in the archival pieces and later the reworked Spring/Summer ’14 show, one is struck by how deftly Wang has reinterpreted Cristóbal’s visionary ideas for the modern customer. The dense floral prints favoured by Cristóbal found their way onto crop tops and miniskirts in pastels and greyscale. Black-and-white dresses came with the familiar rounded shoulders and flowing capes but maintained a modern sex appeal. Structured peplums popped up on printed trousers while Cristóbal’s tailored jackets had been turned into sharp and short jacket-dresses. Wang created 13 new looks exclusively for the Chinese market and it’s a testament to his commercial appeal that every single look has successfully found buyers even before the clothes hit the runway. Cristóbal himself might have never ventured far beyond Paris and Spain but with Wang at the helm, the house he founded is going more places than dreamed of.
An archival Peacock Dress from 1968