Balenciaga: Iconoclast, Artist and 'The Master'.

by Alexandra May | May 24, 2017 | 0 Comments

Hiro (b.1930) Alberta Tiburzi in 'envelope' dress by Cristobal Balenciaga, Harpers Bazaar,June 1967 ©Hiro 1967

When Balenciaga moved to Paris he established himself as 'The Master', a man who created couture art and dressed the elegant and the wealthy. His atelier window was decorated with Janine Janet sculptures rather than examples of his own designs which perhaps helps the reader shift their focus to Balenciaga as an artist and an aesthete rather than a fashion designer.

 X Ray photography of evening dress, silk taffeta, Cristobal Balenciaga, Paris, 1955. X -Ray by Nick Veasy, 2016.

It's easy to forget that fashion is an art form, especially with mainstream mass production reducing beauty to a disposable commodity.

Balenciaga refused to buy into this. He needed the patronage of the wealthy (although he railed against it!) because the work he did was extremely labour intensive, and to an extent the women he dressed needed to have time as well as money, to allow for their numerous fittings.

Since time immemorial artists have had both patrons and muses, and Balenciaga was no different.

Balenciaga was a sculptor of fabric who was considered to be the leader in his field by others and in turn considered the fabric to be his own master. He was a ground breaker with his innovations of volume and re proportioning of the body. He invented the shift dress, the baby doll dress, the body stocking, pattered tights and his vision was constantly forging ahead.

 'Baby Doll' cocktail dress, cape de chine, lace and satin, Cristobal Balenciaga, Paris , 1968 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Balenciaga's time in Paris, for many years was a triumphant one. He 'worked like a 'dog' as he himself said, giving his all and constantly pushing boundaries and reinventing and developing his ideas.

The 1960's bought with it the advent of ready to wear clothing, and a greater than ever emphasis on youth. The time of elegance, couture and a certain type of wealth was past.

If he had been younger Balenciaga would have been able to rise to the occasion in changing the direction of his work, coping with increasing bureaucracy necessary to run a business and also deal with the turning of the tide of the media and public against him and what they felt he represented.

However he felt that he had fought and struggled enough in his life, and retired completely. He died of a heart attack soon after, which, in my perhaps overly romantic interpretation seems very much like dying of a broken heart.

Evening mini-dress, metal wire and plastic pailettes, Paco Rabanne, Paris 1967. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The fashion house of Balenciaga near drifted into obscurity for many years, until its re-emergence under a series of incredibly talented designers. For the Autumn-Winter collection of 2006 Nicolas Ghesquiere made his homage to The Master taking pieces from the archive and reimagining them for the 21st century

...' the noble Spanish couturier died in 1972 but with a little help from Nicolas Ghesquiere...the Balenciaga vision became as fresh and modern as anything on the winter 2006 runway' Susie Menkes /The International Herald Tribune

Looking at the jewellery that I stock in the shop, I also see the work of artists. Designers who have a vision and work hard to realise it.

Rings, earrings and necklace all from 'You Missed it Collection' by Konplott.

Philippe Ferrandis is one such designer, creating his first collections for the House of Givenchy (who had such close ties with Balenciaga that journalists thought there were secret tunnels connecting the two couture houses) before following his personal creative needs and establishing his own atelier.

Necklace and earrings from 'Orient Express' collection by Philippe Ferrandis.

Other jewellery designers in Alexandra May that I also consider to be wonderful artists are Miranda Konstantinidou/Konplott, Jean Louis Blin, Heidi Bennett...well the list goes on and on!

Etruscan Urn Earrings by Jean Louis Blin

In this cycle of creation we must not forget our own role which is akin to the role of the modern patron, albeit on a smaller scale. People such as myself and my lovely customers who see a piece of jewellery not simply as something to make us look and feel fabulous, but as an item that someone has spent time and love creating and will hold its value like any other objet d'art.

Necklace and Earrings from 'Samarai Bloom' Collection. Ring from 'Alien Caviar' Collection. All by Konplott.

As the work of Balenciaga shows, true art survives all trends and fashions. 

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is at the V&A from 27th May 2017-18th Feb 2018 van.ac.uk/balenciaga 

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