Monday, January 31, 2011

Balenciaga: Spanish Master

Every now and then an exhibit arises which has the potential to thrill those in the fashion world through to the bone. When I was in New York just before Christmas, there were plenty of events listed in the "all things fashion" section of my diary. Top of the list was Balenciaga: Spanish Master. The exhibit was the talk of the town when we arrived and my word did it live up to its expectatation.  Exhibits can quite often be large spaces filled with a selection of materials and garments, it might well look impressive but it lacks one thing - emotion, the ability of an exhibit to move you and get you thinking. In this case the life and times of Cristobal Balenciaga.


There is no place more appropriate for a Balenciaga exhibition than the Queen Sophia Spanish Institute. From the beginning the venue alone gives you the impression of the grandeur and the times that Balenciaga himself lived in. He is widely known in fashion circles as “The Spanish Master” - a designer that has become synonymous with the golden age of haute couture and supreme style, with his ritualised costumes, intricate designs and golden creations.

Referred to as "Fashion's Picasso" by Cecil Beaton, and "the only couturier” by Coco Chanel, Balenciaga painted a new image of illustrious style for generations of the best-dressed women in the world. Conceived by Oscar de la Renta, the sparkling exhibit highlights the intoxicating influences of Spanish art, culture, religion and history on Balenciagas creations. All of the creations in the exhibit are as a result of inherent influences on Balenciaga as a child, both what he grew up with and around. It is clear for all to see that he drew his inspiration from within as opposed to external knowledge.

The stunning contrasts between the austere and extravagant luxury of the Christian religion is an amusing highlight of the exhibit. A modest jacket that recalls the robe of St. Francis painted by El Grec is donned by a mannequin that jokingly gestures to a grand, elaborate wedding dress across the way. The wedding dress evokes the vestments created for the Madonna figure carried thorough the streets during the holy days. This contrast continues to flow through the exhibit, speaking to Balenciaga’s childhood as an altar boy (his uncle was a priest) and it seems some of Cristobals designs were made for what he conceived in his head as what a female priest would wear. Religious opulence!

Divided among three floors, the truly inspiring exhibit takes its viewer on a voyage that illuminates the relationship between the designer and his homeland that resulted in technical mastery and supreme style. Some of our favourite pieces included the scarlet silk evening coat, the very wearable camel and black wool dress from the 1960’s, the ‘eisa’ wedding dress and the metallic tunic from the 1960s that evokes Spanish armour. Its sheer beauty would stop a bullet in its tracks. The exhibit, which spans the period from the 1930s to the late 1960s, reveals Balenciagas growing love for abstraction as he matured. This passion can be seen in the 1967 evening ensemble that features head-framing ruffles. The third and final floor of the exhibit contains a video depicting one of  Balenciagas original fashion shows.

Balenciagas lavish creations continue to seduce generations today. This exhibit is one that gets you thinking and is well worth a look. Balenciaga is an inspirational designer to those who want to design garments that they believe in! 

David Greene

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang xx

(Photos courtesy of Queen Sophia Institute)

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