Balenciaga - the Master of Couture

"A couturier must be an architect for design, a sculpture for shape, a painter for colour, a musician for harmony and a philosopher for temperance."    - Christobel Balenciaga                                                   

I'm kicking off my series of London pieces with a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington, and to the astonishing Balenciaga exhibition that's currently there.  I'm no fashion queen, and nor is the V&A my favourite London museum, but I was told this was one that could not be missed and, as a north London girl, I always feel a secret thrill when I travel to the west of the capital (in some odd way, it actually feels like journeying to another planet).  South Kensington is grand, elegant, full of chic Parisians and then, of course, there's 'Museum Row' - more history and culture packed into a square mile than you can begin to imagine.

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Back in my 20's, I remember being put off by the V&A - I found its red brick architecture oppressive and its exhibits dull.  But as someone recently commented to me, the last decade or so has seen this museum reinventing itself, and no more so than in the arena of fashion.  Whether its clubs and catwalks, the history of underwear, elaborate footwear or centuries of wedding dresses, the V&S is outdoing itself again and again - and with this latest exhibition, it's really hit the mark.

To give you a little background, Christobel Balenciaga was only in his 20s when he opened his first boutique in San Sebastian (in the Basque country) but after the Spanish Civil War began he closed and moved to Paris.  It is here that he would remain for the rest of his life, achieving almost instantaneous success (in World War II, it was rumoured that women would risk their safety, travelling to his atelier!)  With his innovative designs - his 'square coat,' swan-like collars, baby doll dresess and elimination of the waist -  it was left to Coco Chanel to sum him up as "the Master of us all."

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Over time, Balenciaga's designs became more linear and sleek - look at Ava Gardner and Jackie Kennedy in his creations, if you want proof.  The ground floor of the exhibition (which, by the way, is beautifully curated) is dedicated to his clothes and accessories and if you're a fashion guru you're going to be in seventh heaven. However, this isn't a full respective, choosing rather to concentrate on the later decades of his life (the 1950s to the 1970s).  Not that you'll be disappointed though - the baby-doll frock, envelope dress, bracelet sleeves and billowing, puffy evening dresses are all on display and make for riveting viewing.

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What makes the exhibit particularly special, I think, is that using the museum's large collection of Balenciaga silhouettes (courtesy of society photographer Cecil Beaton) there are displays of design sketches, preliminary drawings, and photographs of models wearing original pieces.  There's also a wonderful collection of hats - Balenciaga's partner, Franco-Russian Vladzio Jaworowski d'Attainville, was actually a milliner,  The fabric swatches are also worth a good look - many designers begin with a sketch and then seek out the material but with him it was the opposite; "It is the fabric that decides" he once remarked.

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The Spanish designer's proteges were many - Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta and Alexander McQueen amongst them.  And another reason this exhibition shines because, upstairs. you can see their creations too and understand why his influence is still shaping fashion. From vinyl and plastic to silk and crepe, the closer you look, the more you see Balenciaga in them.  (As I said, I'm no fashion guru, but even I was mesmerised).

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It was left to Diane Vreeland, an American editor, to remark quite aptly, "In a Balenciaga you were the only woman in the room - no other woman existed."  And wandering around this exhibition, her words resonate with me because, indeed, his designs are elegant, feminine and timeless.  Balenciaga broke every rule, did exactly as he pleased and was a maestro of his craft.  Not for a long time have I enjoyed a fashion exhibition this much.  

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Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road London SW7 (South Kensington tube)

Tel: 020 7942 2000

www.vam.co.uk