Sunday, January 16, 2011

BALENCIAGA: Spanish Master

Now on view at Queen Sofía Spanish Institute in New York City is the drama of the bullfight, the passion of flamenco dancers and the pageantry of royal court and religious attire rendered in the form of exquisitely crafted dresses and gowns, hats and boleros, in the exhibit BALENCIAGA: Spanish Master. The exhibit was conceived by Oscar de la Renta and curated by Hamish Bowles, European Editor at Large for Vogue, who also wrote the accompanying catalogue.

Balenciaga portrait by Boris Lipnitzki, 1927.

Six themes of Balenciaga’s work are explored: Royal Court, Religious Life, Spanish Art, Regional Dress, Dance, and The Bullfight. More than seventy pieces are on display featuring the best of Spain’s most famous couturier, many on loan from the Balenciaga Archives, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Texas Fashion Collection and, surprisingly, even from Mr. Bowles himself, a longtime aficionado and collector of Balenciaga’s work. The majority of pieces are from the 1950’s and 60’s.

Photograph by Kenny Komer

Cristóbal Balenciaga was born January 21, 1895 in Guetaria, Spain, a fishing town in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa. His father was the captain of a small pleasure boat, his mother a seamstress. After his father died when he was only 10, his mother supported the family with her dressmaking skills. Balenciaga was apprenticed to a tailor at 13 and by the age of 24 had opened his first boutique, Eisa, in San Sebastián, opening subsequent couture salons in both Madrid and Barcelona. The Spanish Civil War, however, forced him to flee to Paris and start anew.

He opened his couture house under his own name in Paris in 1937 and found immediate success. Though he flourished in France, Spain was always in his heart. Diana Vreeland said Balenciaga’s “inspiration came from the bullrings, the flamenco dancers, the fisherman in their boots and loose blouses, the glories of the Church and the cool of the cloisters and monasteries. He took their colors, their cuts, then festooned them to his own taste.”

Photograph by Kenny Komer

In each of Balenciaga’s 93 collections there was always one black dress cut and sewn entirely by him. The lovely Christine, a design student at FIT, but working that day as an exhibition guard, pointed out to me that one of the pieces cut and sewn by Balenciaga himself included a black jacket (with accompanying skirt) with only one seam! Sure enough, the fabric was molded at the shoulders before moving down to become sleeves, no seam in sight save for the zigzag one in the center of the jacket. How do you make a jacket without set-in sleeves? It makes you wish to be in the atelier to watch Balenciaga as he was bringing this creation to life.

Christine also passed on a great story Mr. Bowles told the crowd at the exhibition opening. Once when he was in a Spanish flea market with his grandmother, young Hamish spotted a Balenciaga bolero, which he was dying to buy. He begged his grandmother to give him the money for it but she refused. Fast forward a few decades when the now-adult Hamish comes across the same bolero in a vintage shop in Los Angeles. It’s missing its tag but he recognizes it instantly as the same bolero he longed for as a child and he purchases it on the spot. True story or not, the bolero is part of the exhibit and it is a beauty, made of burgundy silk velvet, black jet and passementerie embroidery. Mr. Bowles lent quite a few pieces from his personal collection, including a standout 1967 evening dress of black silk velvet, rhinestone and bead embroidery, which would not be out of place at a modern day gala.

Other pieces not to be missed include the 1957 wedding dress worn by Sonsoles Díez de Rivera, made of ivory silk shantung organza, with metallic silver embroidery, and the 1954 scarlet silk ottoman evening coat, a direct descendant of the red robes a cardinal of the Catholic church wears to this day. I also loved a 1965 cocktail dress made of vibrant pink lace with a satin belt, and the dramatic gowns with a skirt overlay whose flounces could be flipped upwards to the shoulders to become a cape.

Photograph by Kenny Komer

Photograph by Kenny Komer

Also worth seeing is the soundless video loop of a fashion show at Balenciaga’s salon. The people I sat next to whispered to each other how funny the video was and they were right. It shows a half-empty small room with gilt chairs, the female clientele talking to one another as they watch the models, holding numbers, go in and out of the room wearing the most amazing clothes. A few clients puff on their cigarettes and flick ashes in a standing ashtray. Most look bored. Hilarious! So early 60’s and so very different than the spectacle modern fashion shows have become.

Cristóbal Balenciaga had a long and celebrated career, one in which he gave no interviews. Can you imagine a designer today who would not give an interview? Some of the designers who worked for him who went on to become famous themselves include Oscar de la Renta, André Courrèges, Emanuel Ungaro, and Hubert de Givenchy. Balenciaga closed his couture house in 1968 and died in Jávea, Spain on March 23, 1972.

Photograph by Kenny Komer

Photograph by Kenny Komer

Coco Chanel said of Balenciaga, “He is the only couturier. He is the only one who knows how to cut a fabric, and mount it and sew it with his own hands. The others are just draughtsmen.”

These words come to life in this exhibit, when so many of the pieces, so well-designed, so well-made, truly works of art, could easily be worn today. The mark of a master.

The exhibition runs until February 19, 2011. It will then be expanded for presentation as Balenciaga and Spain at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, from March 26 through July 4, 2011.

If you get an opportunity to see the exhibit in either city, I highly recommend it.

Queen Sofía Spanish Institute
684 Park Avenue
New York NY 10065


Veshoevius said...

Wonderful post! I really enjoyed all the photos and your description of the exhibition - I wish I could see it! I wonder if it will come to London. I love the story about Mr Bowles finally finding the bolero jacket he saw in his childhood.

sacramento said...

What a wonderful post. I am so glad that you also adore Balenciaga. I wish I was able to see it.
Thank you a lot for your kind words, and for following my blog. I am following you too now.

sacramento said...

You are now in my blogroll.

Linda said...

Excellent post on Balenciaga, his work was so wonderful. The pictures are great as well.

sacramento said...

I am sooooooooooo glad that you notice the nails hehehhe.

jill815 said...

Hi Sacramento, thank you for joining my blog, and thank you for putting me on your blog roll! You are also on mine. I love nail polish so I always notice it on other people. I wish you were here so we could go to the Balenciaga exhibit together!

jill815 said...

Hi Mom, the pictures were kindly given to me by the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute press office. They do not allow photography in the exhibit. I wish you were here to see this exhibit with me too. I now have to do more research on Balenciaga because I want to learn more about him.

jill815 said...

Hi Veshoevius! If this exhibit travels beyond San Francisco I will let you know. I like Hamish Bowles more and more. He writes very well and this man can tell a story! I also love that he is so very knowledgeable about Balenciaga and other couturiers. Wouldn't it be fun to hang out with him and have a glass of champagne?