Cristóbal Balenciaga at Queen Sofia Spanish Institute

Cristóbal Balenciaga at Queen Sofia Spanish Institute

January 20114448Views

Exhibition Showcases Designer as Couturier of Cultural Fashion

As was William Shakespeare to English literature, Henri Matisse to modern art, and Frank Lloyd Wright to organic architecture, so was Cristóbal Balenciaga to fashion design — a master of his craft. A fashion innovator, Balenciaga’s designs were all about the cut, from the sack dress and balloon skirt to the funnel-shaped gown and Kimono-sleeved coat. He favored stiff fabrics like silk gazar and duchess satin that offered a sculptural aesthetic.

A highly coveted couturier of the 20th Century, Balenciaga once exclaimed that “No woman can make herself chic if she is not chic herself.” His designs were worn by tastemakers, socialites, and iconic figures in history including former United States first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Queen Fabiola of Belgium, and Gloria Guinness, former contributing editor to Harper’s Bazaar magazine. His design prowess would also inspire a legion of designers including French designers Emanuel Ungaro and Hubert de Givenchy, as well as Columbia-born Oscar de la Renta, who began his career in Madrid at Madrid at Eisa, one of the Spanish branches of Balenciaga’s fashion empire.

In 1918, the Spanish-born designer founded his first Haute Couture house in Spain, but was forced to leave Spain for Paris during the Spanish Civil war in 1937, where he opened his Paris fashion house and created couture for three decades until his retirement in 1968. Under these circumstances, it is conceivable how a sense of nostalgia for his native country might serve as a source of inspiration for his designs.

When one chooses a fashion to wear, not much thought is given to the inspiration of the designer. We rather seek fashion as a tool to express who we are and our status in society, whether intentionally or subconsciously. In a climate of evolving trends, it may seem unlikely that a designer would derive influence from geographical or cultural references.

No woman can make herself chic if she is not chic herself.

Spain however, would be the defining locale to shape the designs of Balenciaga that were sharply contrasted to those of his French contemporaries and exemplified the magnitude in which the perennial designer was impacted by his homeland. The culture of Spain and its people are the foundation for Balenciaga’s designs and can be seen in the colors, textures, and construction of his shapely garments like the flamenco-inspired gowns and matador boleros. Many of his designs were inspired by the working class in Spain like his 1953 fisherman blouse, which can be seen on model Suzy Parker in a famous portrait photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe.
It is this notion that is the focus of the exhibition “Balenciaga: Spanish Master.” In homage to the legendary work of Balenciaga, Oscar de la Renta concepted the idea of the Balenciaga exhibition and enlisted Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s European Editor at Large — a leading authority on fashion — to work on the lofty project. The exhibition premiered at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York and will run through February 19, 2011. On exhibit, are paintings and photographs from cultural influencers in Spain during the time and, of course, Balenciaga designs with more than 70 pieces including clothing and accessories.

Although the items were comprised from museums and private collections throughout Europe and the United States, many of the pieces come from the House of Balenciaga in Paris and represent an unprecedented collaboration between the House and the Institute.

Starting March 26 through July 4, 2011, the exhibition titled, Balenciaga and Spain, will be at de Young Museum in San Francisco. This exhibition will be an expanded version of the New York exhibit and will include more than 100 pieces, including some items from the M.H. de Young Balenciaga collection, and will explore the impact of Spanish culture, history, and traditions. The exhibition will be categorized in six sections: Spanish Art, Regional Dress, The Spanish Court, Religious Life and Ceremony, the Bullfight, and Dance.

“I hope people will come away from this exhibition with a really keen sense of the extraordinary impact of Spanish culture and its history on Balenciaga’s work, during the years he was in Paris,” Bowles, who is the curator for the exhibition, told the Associated Press. “I also hope they come away with a sense of a designer who is constantly evolving and experimenting.”

Image source: Queen Sofia Spanish Institute

Mignon Gould

Mignon Gould

Mignon Gould is a multimedia publisher and the Agent-in-Chief of She is a style enthusiast, who views fashion as an art form that anyone can master. In our Culture column, she shares her musings on the latest happenings in the world, from diversity in fashion to pop culture controversies. Mignon has also interviewed celebrities and insiders including actress Emma Stone, 70's supermodel Pat Cleveland, and Audrey Hepburn's son, Luca Dotti.

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