I make textiles, not clothes, as my sewing skills are somewhat basic and I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the glamorous world of fashion. But I was drawn to this exhibition because Balenciaga was more than a designer – he was a sculptor, or engineer, of fabric.
As the exhibition explains, “Most designers start with a sketch and then seek out a material. Balenciaga began with the fabrics and designed around them. ‘It is the fabric that decides’, he said.”
So he collaborated with the Swiss company Abraham to create gazar silk, a lightweight but sturdy fabric that could stand away from the body while retaining his sculptural silhouettes. However, he didn’t rely on fabric alone: as the X-ray behind show, this apparently loose, unstructured tulip dress was supported by a stiff corset and bar tacks under the arms to ensure a secure fit!
This historically inspired silk taffeta evening dress was supported by hoops, and the fabric was “bagged out” so that it filled with air to create more volume as the wearer walked. Less glamorously, the hem was secured with ties just above the knee (seen at the end of the video).
Intriguingly, many of his sculptural shapes were created from a single piece of fabric, like this evening dress.
Not all his sculptural designs were practical – only two of his famous envelope dresses were sold, and one was returned because the buyer couldn’t go to the toilet when wearing it!
Neither were all of Balenciaga’s designs minimalist. He worked closely with companies such as Lesage, who made luxury embellishments and accessories, including the stunning embroidery on this evening coat, made up of white pearls, teardrop and pink feather-shaped sequins, and Swarovski crystals.
Upstairs, the second part of the exhibition features the work of designers who have been influenced by the master, from Huert de Givenchy to Oscar de la Renta.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion runs at the V&A until 18 February 2018.