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Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion Section No.2

Johnny WANG 2018-12-01 16:43

“For twenty years, Balenciaga was the prophet of nearly every major change in silhouette.”

—Diana Vreeland, former Vogue editor.

Recently, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London held the fashion exhibition Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion. It is never exaggerated to give generous applause to the legendary Spanish designer mastery of fabric and dreamy configuration of colours. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he created some of the decades’ most radical new shapes, which challenged pervading ideas of the feminine form. His creations were inspired from multiple sources, ranging from 19th century dresses to Japanese kimonos. Right during this period, Balenciaga redesigns the female shape by creating evening dresses with its balloon hem, longer hobble skirt and short puffed up cape. Now let’s give a closer look to the mesmerising exhibition and start the exploration of the master designer’s world of fashion.

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The characteristics of Balenciaga’s design are not merely the fabrics and tailoring techniques, but also his ideological innovations in his later periods. In 1962, his Spiral Hat best exemplifies the point. Balenciaga’s milinary were considered among the most sophisticated handicrafts in Paris at the time. During 1950s and 1960s, Balenciaga added surrealism to his designs, which performing interesting experiments in ratio, shape and unconventional materials. Balenciaga insisted on making hats by himself, opening two workshops in Paris specially for hat making. 

Though he did not participate in the first-hand design of hats, he kept close communication with designers in the workshops. Among them include the famous French-Russian hat designer Wladzio d’Attainville and Spanish designer Ramón Esparza. They successfully inherited the avant garde style of Balenciaga and brought it to the wider world.

During the last period of Balenciaga’s 50 years of fashion reign, he extended his practice of silhouettes and fabrics to the abstraction of design. As a result, this concept was embodied through another spectacular piece of work. In 1967 he designed a transparent silk cocktail dress, which was later recognised as “the Envelope Dress” in the fashion history. The dress was designed just a year before his retirement, which again proved Balenciaga’s unshakable position at the top of 1960s fashion.

Though the terrific fashion piece garnered wide acclaim on fashion magazines, it failed on market for its poor practicality. It is said that one customer returned the dress after an unpleasant restroom experience. Nevertheless, the generalised abstraction of design was popular in the 20th century. Even to this day, this idea is still prevalent in works by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, British designer Hussein Chalayan and Dutch designer Iris van Herpen.

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Classic Revival and Mystic Complication

Balenciaga once designed a night jacket (known as the “Suit of Lights”) based on matador jackets, which adapted a male clothing into a female garment. Also, the complication of techniques underneath the simple appearance become the symbol of his design during that period. 

For example, the T-shape kimono he designed hides a device inside the sleeves to fix the gathers in the right place and thus creates a visual fluency of layers. Vogue magazine praised it as a “sculptured, direct beauty of a Roman toga”.

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Contemporary Tribute to Balenciaga

The influence of Balenciaga includes his impact on later fashion designers. In fact, many renowned fashion designers used to be his apprentices and drawers. For instance, Paco Rabanne was the son of the head tailoress of Balenciaga in San Sebastian. Rabanne learned architecture and fashion accessory design. As an early protégé of Balenciaga, Rabanne shared with him many experiments on materials and silhouettes. In this work, the simple needlework and traditional techniques are no longer the central concept, but replaced by ideas of the maker and the technics in applying jewelleries. As a pioneer in the 1960s fashion experiment, Rabanne widely adopted iconic new materials like plastic, metal and leather.

The late American fashion master Oscar de la Renta was a illustrator for Balenciaga during his stay in Eisa, Madrid in the late 1950s. This experience as a illustrator proved exceptional for de la Renta, setting high standards of fashion pieces that would later translate into his own New York atelier. The printing elements on this work often appear in Balenciaga’s designs, while this piece of work is one of Oscar de la Renta’s last designs before his death. 

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