THE SIL­HOU­ETTE OF THE CEN­TURY The first UK ex­hi­bi­tion of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s cre­ations at the V&A is a timely trib­ute to the mas­ter cou­turier

Com­bin­ing sculp­tural artistry, con­cep­tual cre­ativ­ity, and a bril­liant un­der­stand­ing of how to make women feel at ease in their clothes, Cristóbal Balenciaga was revered by his con­tem­po­raries and com­peti­tors as the mas­ter of cou­ture. As the first Bri­tish

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents -

The V&A’s lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion, ‘Balenciaga: Shap­ing Fash­ion’, marks the cen­te­nary of the open­ing of the leg­endary Span­ish cou­turier’s first fash­ion house in San Se­bastián and the 80th an­niver­sary of the launch of his fa­mous brand in Paris. But it is also timely, given the re­mark­able re­nais­sance of Balenciaga un­der its new cre­ative di­rec­tor, Demna Gvasalia, who has ex­plored the la­bel’s ar­chives in his lat­est col­lec­tion, to dra­matic ef­fect. The fi­nale of the show – a high­light of Paris Fash­ion Week in March – con­sisted of nine spec­tac­u­lar cou­ture dresses; Gvasalia’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s ex­tra­or­di­nary de­signs of the 1950s. ‘At first, we tried to do things with them, but I thought it was too much,’ said Gvasalia at the time. ‘So I wanted to keep it pure.’ That the re­sult­ing gowns – a col­umn of flut­ter­ing white feath­ers; a so­phis­ti­cated, strap­less black sheath, wrapped with a gi­ant rib­bon; float­ing tiers of rasp­berry satin – looked so com­pelling and con­tem­po­rary is, of course, a tes­ta­ment to Gvasalia, but a re­minder, too, of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s en­dur­ing legacy.

The cou­turier re­ferred to as ‘the mas­ter of us all’ by Chris­tian Dior was born in 1895 in Ge­taria, a vil­lage on the Basque coast of north­ern Spain. His fa­ther, a fish­er­man and sailor, died when Cristóbal was 11, leav­ing his mother to sup­port her three chil­dren by work­ing as a seam­stress. At 12, Cristóbal be­gan his ap­pren­tice­ship as a tai­lor, hav­ing al­ready been taught to sew by his mother; he sub­se­quently launched his own dress­mak­ing es­tab­lish­ment in San Se­bastián in 1917, and ex­panded his busi­ness to Madrid and Barcelona. When the Span­ish Civil War forced him to close these premises, he moved to Paris, where his de­but in 1937 was watched by Carmel Snow, the in­flu­en­tial ed­i­tor of Harper’s Bazaar. In her mem­oir, she de­clared that ‘a great light burst on the fash­ion world when I saw the first Paris col­lec­tion of Cristóbal Balenciaga. I wasn’t to know well that re­served, mys­te­ri­ous Spa­niard un­til af­ter the war, but my first glimpse of the se­vere el­e­gance of his clothes made me ea­ger to fol­low his de­vel­op­ment.’ As Snow ob­served at the time, ‘his very in­di­vid­ual style was too new, too dif­fer­ent, to be widely ap­pre­ci­ated’ – but she cham­pi­oned him from the start, and his distinc­tive de­signs were soon to form the ma­jor­ity of her wardrobe. Un­der her di­rec­tion, Bazaar was ful­some in its praise of his ear­li­est Paris col­lec­tions, but also cap­tured the sense of sur­prise that the au­di­ence felt at these shows. In 1938, for ex­am­ple, Bazaar re­ported that ‘at the new Span­ish house Balenciaga… the black is so black that it hits you like a blow. Thick Span­ish black, al­most vel­vety, a night with­out stars, which makes the or­di­nary black seem al­most grey… [Balenciaga] abides by the great rule that elim­i­na­tion is the se­cret of chic.’

Af­ter the out­break of World War II, Balenciaga left Paris for Madrid – where Snow duly vis­ited him in 1944. (Such was her de­sire to re­turn to her beloved Paris, af­ter the Lib­er­a­tion, that she un­der­took a dan­ger­ous and cir­cuitous route from New York to France, via Mi­ami, Trinidad, South Amer­ica, West Africa, Lis­bon and Madrid.) Her friend­ship with Balenciaga deep­ened in the sum­mer of 1946, and the fol­low­ing year, he in­vited her to stay with him at his house in San Se­bastián, where they shared sto­ries of their child­hoods. Both had lost their fa­thers too young, and Snow’s mother had also taken up dress­mak­ing, af­ter be­ing wid­owed, in or­der to make ends meet.

In ret­ro­spect, Snow de­scribed ‘the part that Bazaar played in Balenciaga’s ca­reer [as] the achieve­ment I’m proud­est of ’; and gave a mem­o­rable ac­count of wit­ness­ing the show in the win­ter of 1951 that launched what was, in her words, ‘the great suit of our time – the suit with the loosely fit­ted jacket and the col­lar that stands away from the neck’. The bil­low­ing sil­hou­ette – used to sim­i­larly rad­i­cal ef­fect by Gvasalia in his lat­est col­lec­tion for Balenciaga – was di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed to the pre­vail­ing fash­ion for an hour­glass fig­ure. As Snow re­called in her mem­oir: ‘Dior’s New Look was still firmly en­trenched: the eye of the fash­ion world was trained to ap­pre­ci­ate tight waists and snug fits. Buy­ers and ed­i­tors looked aghast at Balenciaga’s col­lec­tion of un­fit­ted suits. They sat there hat­ing them – “Why should a woman look like a house?” – you could feel the hate in the room. In­stead of the “Bravos!” that greeted Dior, there was an un­easy si­lence when the show­ing was over.’

The loyal Snow, seated as usual in the front row, stood up and be­gan to clap, alone. ‘No one joined me. I sim­ply con­tin­ued to clap, slowly, de­lib­er­ately, loud…’ From then on, her friend­ship and back­ing re­mained ab­so­lute, and she wore Balenciaga suits in ev­ery pos­si­ble shade, most of­ten with a lit­tle white pill­box hat (need­less to say, also by Balenciaga). Richard Ave­don, who had started his ca­reer as a pho­tog­ra­pher for Bazaar dur­ing the 1940s, and made reg­u­lar trips with Snow to cover the Paris col­lec­tions un­til her re­tire­ment in 1958, re­mem­bered her in a Balenciaga suit the colour of water­melon, vivid against her laven­der-tinted white hair.

In Septem­ber 1957, she once again proved her fore­sight and fi­delity; as The New York Times re­ported: ‘Carmel Snow, ed­i­tor of Harper’s Bazaar, de­fended [Balenciaga’s] con­tro­ver­sial new chemise dresses… by say­ing they were nei­ther “sad sacks” nor “sex­less”.’ By this point, how­ever, Balenciaga al­ready had a de­voted co­terie of soignée clients, in­clud­ing the Duchess of Wind­sor and Diana Vree­land, Bazaar ’s then fash­ion ed­i­tor. Vree­land ad­mired ‘his won­der­ful sense of colour… his vi­o­lets, his ma­gen­tas, and his mauves’. Ev­ery sum­mer, she said, she would take the same ‘four pairs of slacks and same four pullovers’ – all de­signed by Balenciaga – to wear in the Hamp­tons. ‘Then one year, I went down to Biar­ritz. I laid out ex­actly the same four pairs of slacks, ex­actly

His clothes were seen on the most fa­mous celebri­ties of the cen­tury –

Ava Gard­ner, Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly

the same four pullovers… and I’d never seen them be­fore! It’s the light, of course – the in­ten­si­fy­ing light of the Basque coun­try. There’s never been such a light. That was Balenciaga’s coun­try.’

His fame spread dur­ing the 1960s, when his sculp­tural de­signs were re­garded by many ad­mir­ers as akin to art; as Ce­cil Beaton wrote: ‘He bril­liantly cre­ates a so­lid­ity out of the fleet­ing.’ His clothes were seen on the most fa­mous celebri­ties of the cen­tury – Ava Gard­ner, Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, Au­drey Hep­burn, In­grid Bergman, Marlene Di­et­rich and Lauren Ba­call. Yet such was his abil­ity to make women of all ages, shapes and sizes look and feel beau­ti­ful that he dressed sev­eral gen­er­a­tions with equal suc­cess. At the wed­ding of Carmel Snow’s daugh­ter Brigid, both the bride and her mother wore Balenciaga: Brigid in a grace­ful white gown, Carmel in a red suit of silk bro­cade.

Balenciaga’s house mod­els re­flected the dif­fer­ent ages and body types of his clients – there was never any in­sis­tence on slen­der young man­nequins – and he was famed for his abil­ity to make pieces that were as com­fort­able as they were el­e­gant; for like Coco Chanel, he be­lieved that cloth­ing should be­stow a sense of free­dom, rather than be­ing con­stric­tive. At the same time, his tai­lor­ing was also trans­for­ma­tive. His friend and pro­tégé Hu­bert de Givenchy told a story of one such trans­fig­u­ra­tion: ‘I re­mem­ber one day we were look­ing at the dum­mies of some of his clients; one was the shape of an old woman, her back was stooped with rounded shoul­ders and she had a big stom­ach and hips. While I watched, Balenciaga took a piece of muslin, pinned it to the dummy, and be­gan to work with it. By seam­ing and cut­ting on the bias of the fab­ric he grad­u­ally made the stooped dummy straighten, the round hips and stom­ach dis­ap­pear. The pro­por­tions be­came al­most per­fect. It was like a mir­a­cle.’

When Carmel Snow died in 1961, she was buried in one of her favourite Balenciaga suits; and the most strik­ing of the flo­ral ar­range­ments at her fu­neral was in the shape of her sig­na­ture white Balenciaga hat with a red rose. The great cou­turier closed his busi­ness seven years later, in 1968; he was 74 years old, and felt the time had come for him to re­tire, now that fast fash­ion seemed to be eclips­ing the per­fec­tion of haute cou­ture to which he had de­voted his life. In March 1972, he died at home in Spain; the fol­low­ing year, Diana Vree­land mounted an ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted to his work at the Cos­tume In­sti­tute of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art, the strik­ing de­signs jux­ta­posed with paint­ings by Goya, Velázquez and Pi­casso. But quite aside from this recog­ni­tion of the cou­turier’s great artistry, Vree­land also noted – with some pre­science, per­haps, given Demna Gvasalia’s cur­rent sta­tus as a vi­sion­ary leader of con­tem­po­rary ur­ban cool – that what peo­ple thought of as street fash­ion had in fact al­ready been cre­ated by Cristóbal Balenciaga. This was a phe­nom­e­non that Vree­land had pre­vi­ously re­marked upon in the early Six­ties: ‘I didn’t go much for this streetup busi­ness, be­cause it seemed to me that I’d al­ways seen it at Balenciaga… Balenciaga, for in­stance, did the first vinyl rain­coats, like the gen­darmes wear in the win­ter in Paris. The cape and the boots and the short skirts and the elab­o­rate stock­ings…’

What, one won­ders, might Vree­land, or in­deed Cristóbal Balenciaga him­self, make of Demna Gvasalia, who showed vinyl rain­coats and capes in his spring/ sum­mer 2017 col­lec­tion, styled with orig­i­nal pieces of jew­ellery from the house ar­chives and neon Span­dex stock­ing-boots? Cer­tainly, I felt a jolt­ing sense of be­ing chal­lenged by the shock of the new while watch­ing that par­tic­u­lar show, com­bined with an un­set­tling feel­ing of déjà vu.

An in­tensely pri­vate man, Balenciaga was too enig­matic, and diplo­matic, to give much away about his views on other de­sign­ers; though one of his last pub­lic ap­pear­ances was at Coco Chanel’s fu­neral, to pay his re­spects to a cou­turière he had long ad­mired. As it hap­pens, Chanel tended to dis­miss all her ri­vals, ex­cept for Balenciaga, say­ing that he alone was ‘a cou­turier in the truest sense of the word… the oth­ers are sim­ply fash­ion de­sign­ers’.

But per­haps the last words should go to Ce­cil Beaton, whose col­lec­tion of Balenciaga pieces forms the sub­stan­tial part of the V&A ex­hi­bi­tion, and whose in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the cou­turier’s genius re­mains as per­cep­tive now as when he first wrote about Balenciaga, in The Glass of Fash­ion, in 1954. ‘If Dior is the Wat­teau of dress­mak­ing – full of nu­ances, chic, del­i­cate and timely – then Balenciaga is fash­ion’s Pi­casso. For like that painter, un­der­neath all his ex­per­i­ments with the mod­ern, Balenciaga has a deep re­spect for tra­di­tion and a pure clas­sic line…

‘Proud, Span­ish, clas­si­cal, he is a strange rock to be found in the mid­dle of the chang­ing sea of fash­ion, and one which will en­dure long af­ter the capri­cious waves of the mo­ment have done their best to dis­lodge him.’

‘Balenciaga: Shap­ing Fash­ion’ opens at the V&A (www.vam.ac.uk) on 27 May.

A Bazaar il­lus­tra­tion from Fe­bru­ary 1945

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