A Must See – Balenciaga and Spain

This weekend, the Balenciaga and Spain retrospective opened at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Cristobal Balenciaga, a Spanish designer, was based in Paris, although clearly influenced by the art and culture of Spain.  It’s worth the trip to the De Young to see it, from now until July 4, 2011.  Even Anna Wintour came to San Francisco to pay homage.

A smaller exhibit of this collection was on display in New York City at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, Balenciaga Spanish Master, and I went to see it in February. I was completely fascinated with the clothing – such exquisite designs and intricate hand embroidery and beading showing incredible craftsmanship. Instead of just listing the name of the outfit and when it was designed, you also see the name of the seamstress (Atelier) who worked on it and the name of the model (Mannequin) who wore it in a fashion show or photo shoot.  Some even listed the name of the person who wore it.

Evening dress, Black silk velvet, rhinestone and bead embroidery, Embroidery by Rebe, Worn by Kitty Carlisle Hart, Winter 1967, Atelier: Suzanne, Mannequin:  Valerie, Lent by Hamish Bowles.

I read every bit of the text for each dress, I just thought that was so fascinating and I don’t think I’ve seen any other exhibit displayed like that.  Hamish Bowles, a well-known name in fashion circles as European Editor for Vogue, curated the exhibit.  He’s been collecting Balenciaga ever since he was 12 years old.

Balenciaga’s clothes are sculptural and make a big impact.  Imagine entering a room wearing one of his gowns or capes.  Heads would turn for sure.  Balenciaga described his design aesthetic:

A courtier must be:  An architect for design, a sculptor for shape, a painter for colour, a musician for harmony and a philosopher for temperance. – Cristobal Balenciaga (courtesy Balenciaga.com)

In the New York exhibit, a video of fashion shows at the Balenciaga atelier in Paris during the 1960s plays continuously.  When you go see the exhibit in San Francisco, sit down and watch for a while.  This is a view into a bygone era in the fashion world.  Each mannequin (model) walks into the showroom holding the number for the outfit.  Editors and buyers watch, everybody’s got a “front row” seat, and some people are even smoking.  The shows feel like they are endless, as each outfit is modeled on its own.  You get a glimpse of the women helping to dress and undress the models.  There’s no music and it feels like a very serious affair.  You defintiely get a sense of how the clothes move and look on real bodies.  I could watch for hours.

Balenciaga closed his atelier in 1968, and passed away a few years later in 1972.  But the fashion house was revived in 1986, and today, it is very much a relevant player today, with Nicolas Ghesquière as head designer.  Balenciaga is quite famous for an iconic “It” bag, the Motorcycle handbag, which has been on the arm of most movie stars and fashionistas.  There’s no logo, but the distinct hardware studding and rock n’ roll style is super easy to spot.  It’s also spawned countless knock-offs and fakes.  It’s a classic style, reflecting what Balenciaga has been throughout his lifetime.


1 Comment

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