Sunday, 25 June 2017

Fashion: Balenciaga's Shaping Fashion Exhibition

Balenciaga Shaping Fashion exhibition in London review

After Burberry's Henry Moore Exhibition at Makers House and Alexander McQueen's Savage Beauty, a new fashion exhibition has made it to London town: Cristobal Balenciaga's Shaping Fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum is an absolute must! 

Shaping Fashion marks the centenary of the opening of Balenciaga's first fashion house in San Sebastian and the 80th anniversary of his famous second one in Paris. With a focus on the designer's most creative period, the 1950's and 60s, the exhibition opened officially a few weeks ago in May and will run until February 2018.

Shaping Fashion is the first ever UK exhibition showcasing Balenciaga's work and highlighting his influence on today's fashion industry, e.g. designs by Hussein Chalayan are on display, too. The reason to put emphasis on a later stage in Balenciaga's career was mainly as he produced a significant amount of bespoke designs for high-end clients. It was also the time in which Cristobal introduced iconic shapes to the fashion world that we can't live without today, such as the baby doll shape, the tunic, the shift dress and the sack.

Shaping Fashion exhibition at the V and A

Balenciaga Shaping Fashion: The Structure

Shaping Fashion is hosted at the V&A's specifically designed temporary space right in the middle of the lower ground floor. The round, two-tiered space has been used for the Undressed - Underwear Exhibition before and particularly stands out through its narrow aisles and many glass displays. This might not work for everyone at first sight, as visitors love to see fashion without the glass barrier. However, this time, the exhibits have been curated in a way to engage the visitor and draw them fully into their world. On display are more than 200 pieces including 20 hats which have never been shown publicly before. They are accompanied by archive sketches, patterns, photography, runway footage, samples and two interactive sections in which visitors can try on a Balenciaga cape and get their hands on crafting a one-seam coat in paper form to take home.

Whilst the lower floor explores Balenciaga's craftsmanship, his workrooms and the experience of being a client, the upper floor showcases contemporary designs which have been influenced by the iconic designer's style. Later generations of fashion designers sharing the same values as Balenciaga, have taken inspiration from his styles and impacted today's fashion industry with a more eccentric approach.

Balenciaga fashion exhibition london
shaping fashion balenciaga dresses

Balenciaga Shaping Fashion: History & Exhibits

At first, I wasn't too happy to see the exhibition hosted in the narrow gallery as it didn't work well for the Undressed exhibition - especially for popular exhibitions, the display space is way too uncomfortable as it overcrowds very quickly and you can't spend too long admiring the pieces as there's a constant visitor stream flowing in. Be prepared for some disappointment if you've booked yourself a time slot for after work or the weekend.

I had a ticket for a Friday late afternoon and was lucky as the exhibition was well visited but not super busy as in you've-got-pushed-through-all-the-way. The exhibition is classically curated - pieces are displayed behind glass and there are labels to read. Not very interesting and engaging, however, I had a bit of time to have a proper look at the pieces and read a few labels. Before I walked into Shaping Fashion, my knowledge of Balenciaga was reduced to the fact that Kristen Stewart used to model for the luxury brand. Though the exhibition is structured in a classic way of display and read, I took a lot of information away. Did you know, the luxury label has a sister brand called Eisa in Spain which is much more affordable?

balenciaga designs displayed at fashion exhibition london
balenciaga dress sketches exhibition
exhibits at balenciaga shaping fashion exhibition london

A woman has no need to be perfect or even beautiful to wear my dresses. The dress will do that for her. - C. Balenciaga

Throughout the exhibition, it became obvious, that Cristobal was a highly skilled designer, who was an absolute expert in his field. Not only was he a master in designing and crafting, but in the actual dressmaking process itself. He was a firm believer that "it's the fabric that decides" which reflects pretty much his approach to his work. Balenciaga used to source and choose materials first and would then work his sketches and designs around it. This approach was very fascinating, as it is usually practised the other way round and it just further underlined Balenciaga's passion for the trade of creating and dressmaking, rather than designing.

His passion came through in every exhibit. The majority of dresses came in every colour possible. The shades were mainly in their purest form with barely any hybrid or pastel colours used. Cristobal was obsessed with sleeves and would work on those until pure perfection was achieved. Whilst admiring the beautiful dresses, it became apparent that Balenciaga created wearable fashion for strong, independent women. Barely any design was massively over the top, which usually happens when designers approach fashion as an art form such as the destructive work by McQueen.

Cristobal experimented with fabrics and used embellishments, volants as well as pleat and oversized materials to create architectural pieces. All of his styles are minimalistic and look at first sight simple and basic. However, the V&A used innovative X-ray technology to prove the myth that Balenciaga did use sophisticated structures inside his designs to make them work. The designer has worked with dress weights strategically to determine the exact hang of a skirt in one of his minimal creations and boning in bodices dispelling the myth that he didn't use these structures. The forensic approach looking at the hidden details was captured by X-ray artist Nick Veasey and prints are available from the museum's shop at £50 each.

x-ray technology in fashion balenciaga exhibition london

Cristobal Balenciaga, the father of contemporary fashion, is dead, but his influence remains. - Women's Wear Daily, 1972

The second floor boasts with contemporary designs which have been inspired by Balenciaga's work and values. Amongst the exhibits are many eccentric pieces which celebrate fashion as art. My favourite pieces were a white gown with subtle flowery elements and a pink cape and hat combo.

contemporary fashion influenced by Balenciaga
designs influenced by balenciaga shaping fashion
balenciaga exhibit shaping fashion london
fashion exhibition london balenciaga influence
Balenciaga influence on contemporary fashion

Balenciaga Shaping Fashion: Is It Worth Going?

I spent 1 1/2 walking around admiring the pieces. I found it less engaging and wowing than the Savage Beauty exhibition, but that's partly because the space was different and many pieces by Alexander McQueen weren't kept behind glass. I would advise you to book a time slot for a quieter time in the day as it gets crowded in the narrow aisles leading around the exhibition. The upstairs space is a bit more spacious allowing the exhibits to get "room" to fully develop their effect for the visitor to appreciate. The exhibits on display are magnificent and manifold in so many ways and tell a story of their own. You can literally feel Balenciaga's passion for the craft and industry and take away some inspiration for yourself. 

Tickets for the Shaping Fashion exhibition cost £12 and can be purchased via the museum's website.

Thank you so much for checking out my visit to the Balenciaga's Shaping Fashion Exhibition at the V&A.

Till next time,
Carolin
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