Balenciaga, Fashion’s Original Provocateur

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LONDON — The internet went into its now de rigueur frenzy recently after Balenciaga released a blue, roughly $2,000, trapezoidal tote, created by the artistic director Demna Gvasalia, that bore more than a passing resemblance to a classic plastic Ikea shopping bag (price: 99 cents). The general online response? “How dare they?”

But as a new exhibition on the life and work of the designer Cristóbal Balenciaga at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London makes clear, such behavior is actually in line with the core principles of the Parisian fashion house, founded in Spain almost 100 years ago.

“Cristóbal Balenciaga was very unique for his time in that he was so modern looking and avant-garde in his vision,” said Cassie Davies-Strodder, curator of the exhibition, “Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion.” “Occasionally this made him unpopular, particularly with the press, whom he always liked to keep at arm’s length. He only gave one newspaper interview in his entire life.”

The exhibition, which opens on Saturday and runs through Feb. 18, begins with an exploration of how the couturier reached the zenith of his career in the 1950s and ’60s, largely thanks to innovative materials and revolutionary new shapes, including the tunic, the “baby doll” and shift dresses.

Glass cabinets show multiple examples: a 1961 lurid-green strapless evening gown formed from three tiers of gazar puffballs (known as “the caterpillar”); the 1967 “envelope” cocktail dress, a black architectonic sleeveless structure that completely abstracted the body; and a 1954 floor-length gown in vivid magenta, its cascading balloon hem (a Balenciaga signature) made possible by swaths of fabric supported by hoops, allowing the material to billow for dramatic effect.

Next to that gown are X-ray technical drawings, design sketches, fabric swatches and photographs, the better to illuminate the invisible engineering magic behind the lavish folds.

“There is always this weirdness to a Balenciaga ensemble,” Ms. Davies-Strodder said. “Great beauty, of course, and astonishing structure. But then this abstract and odd quality. It made him quite the provocateur in his day.”

Paradoxically, Balenciaga remained an ardent traditionalist when it came to the construction of garments. Born to a Basque seaman and a seamstress in 1895, he became an apprentice to a tailor at age 12.

He set up his own house in San Sebastián, Spain, in 1917, but in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, moved to Paris, where his reputation was made. A couturier’s obsession with cut and fit, combined with his modern vision of how to clothe the female body, garnered Balenciaga respect and reverence from contemporaries and clients.

Christian Dior called Balenciaga “the master of us all … haute couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga,” while Diana Vreeland, then the editor of American Vogue, deemed him “the prophet of nearly every major chance in silhouette in 20 years.”

In the latter stage of the museum exhibition, which includes 120 pieces, a newer selection of ensembles offer a strong explanation for Mr. Balenciaga still being seen as a leading influence on fashion design today.

Garments by designers as varied as Azzedine Alaïa, Roksanda Ilincic, Oscar de la Renta, Gareth Pugh and Molly Goddard pay admiring homage to the Balenciaga oeuvre. A work by Mr. Gvasalia also makes an appearance in the show: an off-the-shoulder ski jacket laden with an appropriately outlandish approach to structure and volume, given the setting. “Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion” comes just two months after Mr. Gvasalia’s most recent catwalk collection for the house, which was inspired in part by the Balenciaga archives. The collection included nine outfits based on original Balenciaga designs, which are available as made-to-measure orders in the Balenciaga atelier with traditional couture-house skills.

“The idea was to bring Cristóbal’s kind of elegance … but take it into a kind of cool and make it more modern,” Mr. Gvasalia wrote in the exhibition descriptions.

He has it in the bag.

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