Cristobal Balenciaga rose to fame in Paris with his lavish and pioneering house of couture. But despite his efforts and success in his adopted Paris, his home country of Spain always seemed to cast a large shadow over his work. Like yearning for a lost piece of his soul, Balenciaga’s vision and designs always came back to Spain. Homesick, he delved into his memories of life in the Basque countryside, and drew his inspirations from Spain’s unique music, bullfighters’ boleros, and paintings by artists like Velazquez. Balenciaga’s bullfighting inspired suits, which he called his “suit of lights,” are stained in a red so lush you can almost picture a young Balenciaga sitting ring-side as the matador stands center-stage like a glittering sculptural piece of art. Passing throw after throw, Balenciaga himself charged life by the horns, even defeating Nazi occupation and a personal request from Adolf Hitler to move his couture house to Berlin, to which Balenciaga replied, “I might just as well take all the bulls to Berlin and try to train bullfighters there.”
Balenciaga’s designs showcase every aspect of Spanish life. As depicted by Velasquez’s Las Meninas, the royal court of Spain makes its first appearance in Balenciaga’s Infanta dress with its tight bodice embellished with jewels and a full sculptural skirt that blooms from the bodice-like an inverted rose. He also drew inspiration from lesser members of Spanish life, like the fishermen’s blouse and the Guetarian women’s way of gathering their clothes to produce a bunched-up effect in their summer skirts. Balenciaga loved volume and he infused his clothing with ruffles, airy lace, and tier after tier of colorful fabrics to build sculptural forms and shapes in women’s fashion that could still be considered innovative today.
It is only fitting that Balenciaga’s work is on exhibit in a museum of fine art because, just like a novice who follows the lines of a painting, spectators follow those same lines, sparkle, and vivid colors of Balenciaga’s clothing. To the fashion community and lovers of art, Balenciaga’s works are more than just clothing; they are a memoir of the countless women who wore his clothing for the way it made them feel–like a Spanish Rose in full bloom swaying in the warm night air to the wispy sounds of Flamenco music.
If you know very little about fashion or Spanish history, let Balenciaga coast you into his world full of music, passion, and color. Balenciaga’s work also takes us back to a time before the modern runway where fashions were paraded slowly and gently to a room filled with society women sipping on tea and taking note of the sales number the young models held to identify the look they were each wearing. So far from what we call shopping today, Balenciaga’s process took time and patience, as all of his designs were made to custom-fit the body that would be its canvas.
The exhibit featuring his work is currently on display in Golden Gate Park at the de Young museum. Hamish Bowles, the European editor for Vogue served as a special guest curator for this one-of-a-kind collection, which features the full spectrum of Balenciaga’s career as the king of haute couture in Paris. The exhibit runs through July 14, 2011.
For more information about the Balenciaga and Spain exhibit, and to purchase tickets, please visit:
Review by Alicia Alvarez