Shaping Fashion: The Open Book of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s Life and Work

words and illustration by Lydia Chan

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Photography and sketching is not only allowed at the Balenciaga exhibit at the V&A, it’s actively encouraged. That is the beginning of the story as you enter Shaping Fashion.

As though the curator is saying,

“Come and share in Balenciaga’s ideas and work, let it inspire you to create something exciting of your own.”

So aptly named, Shaping Fashion illustrates how Cristóbal Balenciaga’s talent shaped both the physical garments as well as the history of fashion.

The exhibition fosters a story of Balenciaga from his humble beginning as the son of a seamstress to his legacy in the world of fashion 45 years after his death in March 23, 1972.

The exhibit is about opening up his archive and demystifying his process. It seduces the audience not with glamorous staging or dramatic music and set, but with Balenciaga’s unwavering perfectionism, his vision and his incomparable attention to detail which created a body of work with a seamless allure.

Shaping Fashion is like flipping through the rich notebook of a gentle mentor and unwrapping the story of his immense talent that even today exerts its influences over the next generation of bright young fashion stars.

The first floor opens with a soft green bubble dress with Balenciaga’s signature full volumed tailoring. The exhibition explains his talents in pattern cutting, construction and innovative use of materials. It continues to explore the changes of fashion in the decades that Balenciaga was alive and his innovative adaptation to each unique climate. Dior’s post war New Look silhouette with the cinched in waist and full skirts were replaced by Balenciaga’s loose abstract forms of the 50s and 60s and an emphasis on broad shoulders and empire waist lines. The exhibition showcases two of his iconic designs like the black evening dress and cape and the balloon hem dress set in front of an Xray image of each created by artist Nick Veasey in order to articulate the intricate construction hidden underneath.

Dramatic in its voluptuous forms, but quite minimal in its surface texture and exposed tailoring details, articulate and decisive in the construction and sculpting of materials, but also stepping back to let the material speak to the designs that he creates; Balenciaga’s talents are in striking a balance between contrasting worlds.

The legacy that Balenciaga left behind is one that redefines the female shape (creating clothes that frame the body disguising the natural curves of a women rather than restrict and exaggerate the body to conform to an ideal feminine figure.

‘A women has no need to be perfect or even beautiful to wear my dresses. The dress will do all that for her’ - Cristóbal Balenciaga

The second floor is a collection of established like Rei Kawakubo to up and coming designers like Molly Goddard who cite Balenciaga as inspiration in their collections; encapsulating the many ways in which his work continue to designers well after his death.

Talent creates the vision it might even gives one the aptitude for sculpting with fabric, but Discipline, Dedication, holding yourself to rigorous standards and generally giving is a shit about what you do it what materializes talent into a body of work that moves people for generations.