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balenciaga shaping fashion cristobal v&a museum exhibition
Model wearing Balenciaga orange coat as I. Magnin buyers inspect a dinner outfit in the background, Paris, France, 1954Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum

The ‘Shaping Fashion’ curator on Balenciaga’s radical design

As the V&A’s latest blockbuster exhibition opens today, Cassie Davies-Strodder discusses the legacy of man Dior called ‘the master of us all’

There are only a handful of labels as storied and revered as Balenciaga. In its 100-year history, the Parisian house has been a disruptive force in fashion, repeatedly challenging the system through its bold and radical designs. 

Although current headlines may be dominated by haute Ikea bags, the label’s founder, Cristóbal Balenciaga, was one of fashion’s true pioneers, regarded by many as the “master courtier”. Born in Northern Spain in 1895, he learnt his trade at his seamstress mother’s side, developed it further during apprenticeships at tailor’s workshops in Madrid, before finally perfecting his craft at his own salons throughout Spain. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 forced him to close his business and relocate to Paris where he opened a new atelier in the city’s fashionable 8th Arrondissement. It was here that he would show his latest collections twice a year to his loyal customers, buyers and the press. The designs and ideas that came pouring out of this workshop after the end of World War II are considered by many to be some of the most influential the world of fashion has ever seen.

While Cristóbal Balenciaga never became a household name to the extent of his contemporaries such as Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy, his reputation and influence within the fashion industry is unparalleled. Known as a tireless innovator, he continuously experimented with new cuts, fabrics and techniques in pursuit of his own very personalised notion of beauty. By applying structural and architectural principles to lift clothes off the body, he helped to redefine the shapes and silhouettes of women’s fashion.

Cassie Davies-Strodder, curator of a new exhibition at the V&A Museum in London, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, believes Balenciaga’s methodology and obsessive attention to detail have shaped the course of modern fashion: “The more I look at Cristóbal Balenciaga’s signature designs, the more I see his influence everywhere.”

“The revival of Balenciaga’s minimalist aesthetic can be seen in the work of designers such as J.W.Anderson and Phoebe Philo at Céline and his exploration in framing and abstracting the body can be found in the voluminous designs of Molly Goddard and the abstract creations of Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons. His pursuit of perfection can be seen in the intricate work of Erdem and Dries Van Noten, while his pioneering work with new materials is continued by designers such as Iris van Herpen, Simone Rocha, Nicolas Ghesquière and Azzedine Alaïa.”

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion chronicles the impact of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s progressive clothing throughout his career. Showcasing some of his most iconic dresses and silhouettes, the exhibition demonstrates his unrivalled craftsmanship, his revolutionary use of fabric and peerless vision. Also on show are designs from Balenciaga’s successors, such as Ghesquière, Alexander Wang and Demna Gvasalia, offering a unique insight aesthetic development of the label. Davies-Strodder tells us more, giving her unique insight into one of fashion’s most important labels.

Spanish fashion houses have rarely attained the notoriety of their Italian and French counterparts. Even Balenciaga had to move from Spain to Paris to really establish himself internationally. Why do you think this is?

Cassie Davies-Strodder: Balenciaga maintained strong links with Spain throughout his career with fashion houses in San Sebastian, Barcelona and Madrid operating under the name of his sister label ‘EISA’. At the time when he moved to Paris in 1937, Spain was in the midst of a civil war which had a detrimental effect on all industry, including fashion. The wealthiest and most fashionable women shopped in Paris, and so to become a success internationally Balenciaga had to have a presence there. 

What is it about Balenciaga’s work that resonated so much with the time? And why is he still so inspiring to this day?

Cassie Davies-Strodder: I believe that Balenciaga’s greatest contribution to fashion history was in revolutionising the shape of women’s fashion. In the 1950s, when Christian Dior’s hourglass-shaped ‘New Look’ garments were still dominant, Balenciaga introduced more modern shapes such as the barrel line, tunic and sack dress that eliminated the waist and framed the body instead of restricting it, and that still resonates in fashion today. 

What was it about his technique that made people refer to him as the ‘King’ and the ‘Master Courtier’? 

Cassie Davies-Strodder: Cristóbal Balenciaga represents the pinnacle of haute-couture in the 1950s and 1960s, and his early training set him apart from his contemporaries. Balenciaga grew up in a small fishing village in northern Spain where his mother was a seamstress. At the age of 12 he was apprenticed to a local tailor where he honed his attention to detail, exquisite cutting skills and mastery of fabric, before setting up his Spanish fashion label EISA in 1917. Consequently, when he arrived in Paris in 1937, he had already amassed over 20 years’ experience before setting up his revered fashion house at 10 Avenue George V.

“Coco Chanel described him as ‘a couturier in the truest sense of the word...The others are simply fashion designers’; while Christian Dior said ‘Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga’” – Cassie Davies-Strodder

What is it that separated Balenciaga from the likes of Christian Dior and Coco Chanel?

Cassie Davies-Strodder: Unlike most of his contemporaries who would draw a quick sketch to be interpreted into a design by the workroom, Balenciaga was skilled in all aspects of the making process, from the cutting, assembling and draping of a garment to the fitting and finishing. He approached designing with a practical eye and always began the process with the fabric. Coco Chanel described him as ‘a couturier in the truest sense of the word...The others are simply fashion designers’; while Christian Dior said ‘Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga’.

There is an air of mystery around him as a person and a designer, what do you put this down to? 

Cassie Davies-Strodder: There is certainly an air of mystery around Cristóbal Balenciaga. He was an intensely private person. We know very little about his personal life and limited documentary evidence exists. His salon in Paris was renowned for its serious and intimidating atmosphere, which only added to its appeal. Twice a year, Balenciaga showed his new collections there. He courted controversy in 1956 when he barred the press from his initial showings to clients and buyers. Concerned with protecting his designs from illegal copies, Balenciaga made journalists wait for a month before they could view or publish them. His disciple Hubert de Givenchy joined him in his stand, and for 10 years the two were such beacons of the fashion world that international journalists made additional trips to Paris just to cover their shows. During his salon shows, Balenciaga hid behind the curtain and refused to bow at the end, preferring the clothes to speak for themselves. This, coupled with the fact that he only ever gave one official press interview, contributed greatly to his mysterious aura. 

What was Balenciaga’s signature, what did he excel at?

Cassie Davies-Strodder: Cristóbal Balenciaga’s signature lies in his ability to originate revolutionary shapes. He became one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century due to the enduring and modern appeal of his designs and his uncompromising integrity and vision. He was revered by his contemporaries, including Coco Chanel and Hubert de Givenchy, and his exquisite craftsmanship, pioneering use of fabric and innovative cutting set the tone for the modernity of the late 20th century fashion. His legacy reaches far beyond the brand that continues under his name, and his approach to design – his skill, attention to detail and involvement in all stages of the making process – remain much admired in the fashion world today. 

His successors have all contributed something different to the Balenciaga house, do you see a common theme that links them?

Cassie Davies-Strodder: The subsequent Creative Directors of the Balenciaga house have each had a reverence and understanding of the work and ethos of the house’s founder, Cristóbal Balenciaga. Both Nicolas Ghesquière and Demna Gvasalia have spoken about their debt to Cristóbal and their revisiting of ‘the master’s’ work in the archives, reinterpreting Cristóbal Balenciaga’s signature looks for a new generation of wearers. On taking up his position as Creative Director of Balenciaga in 2016, Demna Gvasalia noted: ‘It is important to know the past in order to build the future’. 

Obviouslythere was a lot of talk when Demna Gvasalia was named as creative director, do you think this was a logical appointment in fitting with the house’s history?

Cassie Davies-Strodder: Although at first glance the current Balenciaga aesthetic does not have a lot in common with the haute couture tradition of the founder, both Cristóbal Balenciaga and Gvasalia share an independent vision, and Gvasalia cites Balenciaga’s 360° approach to looking at the body as a key influence on his work. Additionally, neither Balenciaga nor Gvasalia has shied away from challenging the fashion system they operate in. I think like Balenciaga himself, the brand will continue to transform and challenge the fashion industry norms, whether that be in pioneering new silhouettes through clever cutting and design ingenuity or through changing the way in which it presents its collections. Gvasalia’s latest collection for Balenciaga showed strong links to the past – the show finale was a series of nine couture dresses reinterpreted from Cristóbal Balenciaga’s iconic designs of the 1950s and 1960s.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is open from 27th May-18th February at the V&A, London SW7 2RL