Curated by Hamish Bowles, American Vogue’s European Editor at Large, BALENCIAGA: Spanish Master, on view at New York’s Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, is an extraordinary and unprecedented exhibition showcasing more than seventy items of the legendary and still influential Cristóbal Balenciaga’s clothing and accessories, many of them never-before-seen.
Born in a Basque fishing village in 1895, the young Balenciaga spent 20 years working as a tailor, dressmaker and designer. By the time he was 42 he had built up a fashionable royal client list that included marquessas and queens, including Doña María del Carmen Polo-Vereterra y Martínez-Valdés, 1st Lady of Meirás, the wife of the notorious dictator General Francisco Franco. After fleeing the Spanish Civil War, he moved to Paris, where he set up his couture house and opened his first shop on Avenue Georges V in 1937 (the year the show begins), each to immediate critical and popular acclaim. But Balenciaga, whose revolutionary genius and mastery of drapery changed forever women’s silhouettes, never forgot nor abandoned (at least aesthetically) his Spanish roots. You can take the man out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the man, as the old saying goes, and as the garments included in BALENCIAGA: Spanish Master attest.
The historic exhibition was conceived by designer Oscar de la Renta who, early in his career was, briefly, a protégé of Balenciaga. He approached Bowles about the idea and, to make his selections, Bowles traveled to Geteria, Balenciaga’s home town and to the Prado Museum where he found a virtual treasure trove of iconic Balenciaga masterpieces, each of them referencing, in uniquely chic, inventive interpretations, many of Spain’s regional and religious dress codes: toreador boleros and flamenco-inspired ruffled dresses, a caped coat inspired by and matching the exact color of a robe worn by a cardinal, and Sixties evening gowns, which Bowles has said suggest “the silhouette and form of a mother superior’s wimple”.
Other pièces de résistance? Balenciaga’s 1939 Infanta gown, and his four-point silk gazar dress of 1967 which illustrates the increasing abstraction in his work. Loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and its legendary collection are featured as well, most impressively a 1947 matador evening bolero and a sumptuously embroidered evening dress from 1950. These garments and other objects from their collection have been exclusively photographed by Craig McDean for the upcoming companion exhibition catalogue, which will be published later this fall by Rizzoli. Additional highlights are the extraordinary embroidered 1957 wedding dress of Sonsoles Díez de Rivera (daughter of Balenciaga’s Spanish muse, the Marquesa de Llanzol), a matador bolero from 1946 and flamenco-inspired dresses from 1951 and 1961, which come from museum and private collections in America and Europe. Bowles, who has put together an expanded presentation of the show that will open at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in March 2011, has also included Balenciaga pieces from his own outstanding collection and from those of leading private couture collectors from around the world.
‘BALENCIAGA: Spanish Master’ is on view at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, 684 Park Avenue, New York, until 19th February 2011