I recently popped into the V&A to see the Balenciaga: Shaping FashionÂ exhibition. Besides admiring the exquisite craftsmanship, I was also there to explore Cristobal Balenciaga’s innovative designs that have shaped modern fashion. The V&A explained, “This exhibition examines the work and legacy of influential Spanish couturier Cristobal Balenciaga, with over 100 pieces crafted by the master of couture, his protoges and contemporary fashion designers working in the same innovative tradition.” His most innovative designs were his simplest. He set himself apart by being fearless when it came to invisible engineering. He was constantly applauded for how he was able to manipulate material and create dramatic folds that resulted in a sculptured beauty of a garment. Intensively silent, Balenciaga revolutionised the female silhouette, by evolving his designs each season.
“He only worked with artisans who were willing to push boundaries in both design and materials.”
As a man who preferred his designs to speak for themselves, he trained as both a dressmaker and a tailor. Balenciaga was famously skilled in the cut of a garment. He had deep knowledge of fabric, that is why he was able to cut a garment from a single piece of cloth. A great example of innovation, is Balenciaga’s one-seam coat. The deceptively simple one-seam coat was made from just one piece of fabric. It was a coat that exemplified Balenciaga’s mastery of tailoring. The ‘ohhh’ moment was that he was able to give the coat shape with a single seam that ran under the arms, tucks and folds of the fabric.
When it came to new innovative ideas, what I loved most was how Balenciaga was how skilful he was in draping the finest of silk in a way that created an amazing effect. A perfectionist at heart, he only worked with artisans who were willing to push boundaries in both design and materials. He had a vision and he wanted those working with him to be able to share in it.
Described as the “Prophet of every major change in silhouette” by Diana Vreeland, a longtime fan of Balenciaga, I guess that it shouldn’t come as a surprise that decades later his work is still quite relevant. I think it is because the majority of it was built on the foundations of modernity. This is why the house of Balenciaga, has influenced the likes of Molly Goddard, Issey Miyake and Alexander McQueen who began his career as a tailor.
Inspired largely by non-western clothing, Balenciaga dropped his garments in a way that framed a woman’s figure rather than restrict it. Drawing on his simplified asthestics, many designers, like Phoebe Philip and Rick Owens, have admitted to Balenciaga’s cutting and tailoring skills playing a role in how they reimagined silhouettes for a new generation. This is a time were tunics, body skimming shifts and column dresses have become staples of the modern wardrobe. “We are regurgitating what they’ve (Balenciaga) have done”, said Hussein Chalayan. No truer words have been spoken.
As the merger of fashion with technology continues to gain momentum, I look to fashion houses like Balenciaga for inspiration. True, they did not create a jacket that can check my heartbeat, but their innovation process has stood the test of time. How can you not love how Balenciaga’s influence has remained relevant? This is why I believe that designers who are creating for tomorrow’s wardrobe, should take on the same kind of attitude and strength that allowed great designers like Cristobal Balenciaga to shape fashion into what it is today.