Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at the V&A

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!

balenciaga tulip dress

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).

balenciaga evening dress

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.

balenciaga evening coat

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.

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Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic at the National Gallery

You sense that Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili has a bit of the devil in him. When the Clothworkers’ Company approached him about commissioning a tapestry for their dining room, he sent back a list of conditions – a non-wish list, if you will. He didn’t want to meet them, he didn’t want to see where the tapestry would be hung, and he didn’t want a discussion about the content.

When the livery company agreed to all his demands, Ofili came up with a new ruse. In a fascinating BBC TV documentary following the creation of the tapestry, he twinkles:

“I thought it would be funny to see if the weavers could actually weave water. So I found myself making the watercolour and trying to release the pigment even more and giggling at the fact that it was almost impossible for them to achieve it – there’s no way they’re going to be able to do this! So let’s just sit back and watch!”

And watch we do, open mouthed as, over nearly three years, an amazing team of weavers at the Dovecot Tapestry Studio in Edinburgh translate Ofili’s watery triptych of free-flowing colour and grazing charcoal into a shimmering fabrication of wool.

One of the weavers, Emma Jo Webster, explains: “The watercolour’s multilayered, so you’re often looking at the colours underneath to come up through the row as well. So rather than just a block of colour the mixing is very important….If you want to weave something that looks all the same colour but you don’t want it to look flat, like cardboard, you would make a mix of very close colours and then it will just gently look like the same colour.”

Viewing the tapestry close up at the National Gallery, you can see what they mean. Like an Impressionist painting, the flecks of individual colours dance before your eyes, before coalescing into luminous pools of colour bleeding into each other as you move further away.

The central scene could be seen as a modern-day Genesis, with Adam strumming a guitar while languid Eve’s cocktail glass is refilled by a somewhat abstract barman (based on footballer Mario Balotelli!) lurking in a palm tree. Storm clouds loom in the distance, presaging an imminent end to this paradise.

The setting is wonderfully theatrical, and not just because of the male and female figures on either side, holding back the curtains to allow us a glimpse of this intimate tableau.

Around the walls floats a chorus of grisaille dancers, their sinuous voluptuousness and billowing veils straight out of an Indian temple. But many have moustaches and goatee beards – another sign that not is all as it seems?

Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic runs at the National Gallery until 28 August. After that the tapestry will be permanently installed in the Livery Hall at Clothworkers’ Hall and will be available to view by appointment. Contact archivist@clothworkers.co.uk for more details.

Chris Ofili: The Caged Bird’s Song is available on the BBC iPlayer for a further 21 days (apologies to readers who live outside the UK, who may not be able to view it).

City & Guilds degree show 2017

Having grumbled about the Chelsea degree show this year, I feel I should give credit where it is due and commend the City & Guilds degree show for its professionalism.

All the exhibitors had artist statements (most of which were not too burdened with gobbledegook “artspeak”!) explaining their intentions and way of working. Some also had copies of research behind their ideas and approach.

Although it doesn’t have a textiles degree, we usually visit the show because ESP is interested in the stone carving. Among the examples of foliage, drapery, and lettering (some of which was quite innovative this year), I particularly liked Liz Middleton‘s limestone pillows.

Liz Middleton limestone pillows

And although there isn’t a textiles specialism, there were some textiles on display.

Hannah Hill‘s funny, energetic, feminist embroideries make the point that embroidery has never traditionally been considered an art form – it’s just “women’s work”.

Hannah Hill embroidery
Image: Hannah Hill

In the same room, Kirsty Armstrong showed large sheets of oxidised (rusty) steel, which she had used to make a latex “print”.

Kirsty Armstrong steel and latex

Natalia Gonzalez Martin’s meaty amorphous sculptures were made from chicken wire, plaster and wax, partly covered with gauze. Displayed on plinths, they raised the question of who in society has the power to decide what cultural objects should be displayed in museums and galleries.

Natalia Gonzalez Martin sculptures

I wasn’t sure how her work would fit in a domestic setting, but I did buy one of her monoprints!

Natalia Gonzalez Martin monoprint

The City & Guilds degree show runs until 2 July.

SLWA My Place exhibition

I’m very excited to be taking part in the My Place exhibition organised by the South London Women Artists. The work of 30 artists will be on show, each exploring their sense of place and belonging.

My piece combines ombre-dyed cotton scrim and felt, because my place – where I feel most at home – is by the indigo vat.

ombre dyed felt

The colour indigo is traditionally thought to stimulate right brain or creative activity, but for me it is more of a meditative experience, disrupting the coppery sheen of the surface as I dip the fabric, and watching the magical alchemy as it turns from green to blue before my eyes. The white clouds in the sky above are mirrored by the clumps of foam, or indigo “flower”, floating on the surface of the vat.

My Place runs from 7 to 12 July at Brixton East 1871, 100 Barrington Road, London SW9 7JF, 11am-6pm daily.

The private view is on Friday 7 July, 6-9pm – everyone welcome!

Chelsea Textile Design Show 2017

Maybe it’s the heat, or maybe it’s my age, but I was a bit disappointed with the Chelsea show this year.

I noted two years ago the increase in installation displays, and that trend continues. Lord knows I’m the last one to criticise adventurous use of materials – I’ve experimented with paper, plastic, metal, plaster, stone, wood and shells as well as fibre in my work. But then I’m not doing a degree in textile design. When a display includes nothing that could be remotely defined as a textile I start to think that maybe they just ran out of space in the fine art exhibition area opposite.

Also, as a visitor I like to know the story behind the work. What was the inspiration or theme? A sketchbook showing the development of ideas is always fascinating. Although many of the displays had “look books”, too often they didn’t add much information – just more images. And a table of apparently random samples is not really presenting work in its best light.

Still, enough of the gripes. Here are my favourites based on my personal prejudices.

Charlotte Hanford had one of the most coherent displays, including an explanation that she was inspired by launderettes, including the circular machine drums. Her weaving even included lint gathered from machines in various launderettes!

Another imaginative display by Tracy Chu consisted of stitched vessels made from glow-in-the-dark thread, which had to be viewed with torches in black boxes.

Image: Tracy Chu

Jessica Grace Adam was inspired by corals and sea urchins.

And Jee Yeon Yang’s structural stitched pieces had a similar feel.

I also liked Nadya Prajoga’s delicate stitchery on sheer fabric.

Cherry Moxon‘s sculptural knits in earthy colours spoke of decay and erosion…

…while Mengfan Zhou used more unconventional plastic tubing.

Given my own recent experience of working with metal, I was interested to see India Badby combining metal and textiles, and some of the techniques looked very familiar!

Alice Gordon combined print and pleat, including some origami techniques.

And Haewon Youn’s printed pieces represented measures of emotion.

The Chelsea textile design degree show runs until 24 June.