A First Look at the New Balenciaga Exhibition Coming This Spring

A First Look at the New Balenciaga Exhibition Coming This Spring

The timing of the V&A’s upcoming show couldn’t be chicer.

The timing of the V&A’s upcoming show couldn’t be chicer.

Text: Sophie Bew

“It’s a happy coincidence!” says V&A curator Cassie Davies-Strodder of the timing between the London museum’s new blockbuster exhibition Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion and the brand’s current success. While beloved creative director Demna Gvasalia makes headlines with each new collection for the French fashion house—as well as his own Eastern Bloc-bred label Vetements—Balenciaga is celebrating some big birthdays. Opening in May this year, the exhibition collides with both the centennial of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s first salon opening in San Sebastián, as well as the 80th anniversary of his first Parisian showroom and serves to pull the brand’s past into the present.

Divided into three spaces - the Front of House; the Showroom; the Legacy - the exhibition is designed to explore Cristóbal’s revolutionary approach to cloaking the body. For the first time at the V&A, X-rays were taken of dresses to understand their structure and weighting; among the findings was a set of metal discs inserted into a cape to get the hang just-so. An analysis of Balenciaga’s dress shapes - from the balloon hem to the babydoll - paints the portrait of a revolutionary; he invented the sack dress just as Dior’s New Look had become prevalent and it was the picture of an almost anti-fashion modernity. Such statements were only for his customers however, since he banned the press for the first 10 years of his shows and gave only one interview in 1972 after he’d stopped designing.

Gvasalia’s riffs on the brand's signature show him to have plenty in common with the label's founder. Revisiting the classic grey two-button blazer and pencil skirt suit for his very first look for the brand, Gvasalia displayed a deference to the brand’s history, while bringing it into the 21st century via a sculpted waist and ever-so-slightly alien proportions. By steeping the new Balenciaga in sportswear references and his distinctive breed of urban luxury, Gvasalia heralds a new mode for Balenciaga. Even the ubiquitous puffer jacket boasts a couture-approach to structure: the collar appears to slump off the shoulders when in fact it’s carefully boned in order to balance there, resulting in a beautiful remix.

“I think it’s really interesting that they've employed somebody like Demna Gvasalia because I think the way they approach the fashion—both Balenciaga and him—are similar, not wanting to be a puppet for the fashion industry or the press,” Davies-Strodder tells V. “I think he’d be excited by someone like Gvasalia. Though Balenciaga’s approach was very couture: whether he’d approve of ready-to-wear is another question, but their approach is very similar.” Archive imagery in the exhibition reveals the face of the Parisian store in its infancy; block black lettering looks decidedly modern, and rather than gowns filling the boutique windows, abstract sculptures stand in their place, built from scraps of fabric from the workshop floor, studded with pins and feathers. An off-kilter attitude to the prestigious world of fashion draws clear lines between the renegade innovator of the early 20th century and the brand as we know it today.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion opens May 27. Tickets are on sale now at www.vam.ac.uk. Get a preview of the exhibition in the slideshow below.

'Baby Doll' Cocktail Dress, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1958 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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