Balenciaga: Spanish Master

Oscar De La Renta and Hamish Bowles team up to celebrate the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga

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Last weekend marked the opening of the first major survey of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s work. Hailed as 'Fashion’s Picasso' by photographer Cecil Beaton, the exhibition will investigate the impact of Spanish art, culture and history on Balenciaga’s designs. Over 70 of his garments will be shown alongside traditional Spanish costumes and artworks, in an attempt to convey his longstanding infatuation with his native culture. The show was conceived by Oscar De La Renta, who began his career working for Balenciaga, and has been curated by Vogue’s European Editor-at-Large Hamish Bowles.

Dazed Digital: How did you become involved with the exhibition?
Hamish Bowles:
It came about through Oscar De La Renta who is also the chairman of the board of directors at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York. Oscar had long wanted to an exhibition on Balenciaga at the Institute, so he came to me with the idea of focusing on Balenciaga and Spain, specifically the influence of Spanish culture and art on Balenciaga’s work. Then I began having a dialogue with John Buchanan the director of de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco. They had such great success with the Vivienne Westwood and Yves Saint Laurent shows a few years ago, so we developed the idea of another fashion history related show focusing on Balenciaga and Spain. The show will move there after its debut at the Queen Sofia Institute.

DD: The show focuses on Balenciaga’s influence on Spanish culture, was it very important to open the exhibition at the Queen Sofia Spanish institute?
Hamish Bowles:
Well, like I said, the idea for the show came from Oscar De La Renta and he very specifically linked the fact that the Spanish Institute is about raising awareness about Spanish cultural history. It seemed an appropriate fit that we would use the venue to explore the profound and continuing influence of native Spanish culture on Balenciaga’s work. He had to flee Spain during the Spanish civil war in the late 1930’s and relocated in Paris. The clothes that we are featuring are all primarily from that Paris period from 1937 until the retired in 1968. What I find so interesting is that although I have a sense of the more obvious connections like the clothes that suggest a flamenco dance costume, an embroidered matador bolero or clothes that resemble those worn in portraits by Goya or Velázquez. But I think once I researched Spanish regional, ceremonial and religious dress I just found these endless connections within Balenciaga’s work. It seemed a very appropriate idea to house the exhibition at the institute.

DD: What was Oscar De La Renta’s role within creating the show?
Hamish Bowles:
Oscar worked at Eisa, which is the Spanish branch of Balenciaga’s fashion empire for a short period in the late 1950’s. He has been able to give me a very vivid sense of life and the fashion atmosphere in Madrid in that period. That information has been vital. He has certainly been very involved although he has handed curatorial responsibility over to me. We are even borrowing this amazing Cape that was made for him by one of the great tailors in Madrid in the late 50’s, which is very similar to a Balenciaga cape from a similar period. Throughout the exhibition we are using examples of historic period and regional Spanish dress. Especially when the show moves to San Francisco, as we will have more space. This is to highlight the incredible dialogue and connections between those pieces and Balenciaga’s work.

DD: How did you go about selecting the pieces within the exhibition?
Hamish Bowles:
It was very specifically the Spanish influence that I was looking for. The process started by contacting every museum and private collection in the world. I visited as many collections as I could and the Balenciaga archive in Paris was hugely helpful in this process. Then I researched Spanish art and cultural history and began looking for resonances. The Queen Sofia Institute was our primary lender and Nicolas Ghesquiere was so generous with lending us pieces. He also gave us access to the archive of print material, such as Balenciaga’s sketches and photography.

DD: What additional material will be shown alongside the garments?
Hamish Bowles:
We have an area that will be evocative of Balenciaga’s couture salon in Paris. We will also be showing these amazing films, which have been directed by Tom Kublin who was a friend of Balenciaga’s. He documented Balenciaga’s work from the late 1950’s through to his retirement in 1968. It is fascinating to see the clothes in movement and I think it is going to be an exciting component of the show.

DD: You also had a lot of involvement with the catalogue that will accompany the exhibition…
Hamish Bowles:
I wrote the essay in the catalogue. I talked to Balenciaga’s clients, friend and people who worked with him. It is so fascinating to talk to those that wore his clothes, as their insights have been completely invaluable. It has been a really exciting experience. In terms of photography, Craig McDean has documented some of the pieces that the Metropolitan Museum of Art are leaning us. They are tremendous images and we are extremely excited to have those in the catalogue. There is also a lot of primary source material that was taken from the Balenciaga archive. It really conveys his thought and design process.

Balenciaga: Spanish Master runs from 19th November 2010 – 19th February 2011 at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, New York.

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