Balenciaga is one label that hasn't lost touch with its roots
Its catwalk show is among the highlights of Paris Fashion Week
Friday 01 October 2010
For more than a decade, the revitalised Balenciaga has been among the most hotly anticipated names on the Paris catwalk calendar. That label's designer, Nicolas Ghesquière, has long rushed in where angels fear to tread and with the most innovative, influential and – importantly - commercially successful results. His show yesterday was no exception. This was a fierce and determinedly original view of femininity: tough, resolutely metropolitan and all the more beautiful for that.
While too many of the world's designers have tried to convince the fashion follower that block colour and white are likely to be de rigueur for the forthcoming spring/summer season (aren't they always?) or indeed that the 1970s is the nostalgia-fest du jour (again), Ghesquière occupied less predictable territory.
For this designer, any hallmarks are, increasingly, self-referential – a sign of the strength of a brand if ever there was one. Ghesquière's signatures – retro-futurism, a strange mix of hard-to-identify fabrics and a respect for tradition directed into ever more uncharted territory – continue to ring out loud and clear. And so too, of course, does the patrimony of the house in question, which remains among the most respected in history. This was present and correct also in the strong but rounded shoulder, the sack back and the cocoon shape beloved by Ghesquière, just as they were by the label's founder, Cristóbal Balenciaga, before him. Both also exemplify extreme rigour and a principally architectural approach to fashion that is brave, bold and does not even remotely concern itself with a woman as shrinking violet.
The Spanish-born Balenciaga, often referred to as "the Master", ruled over fashion like a temperamental and uncompromising colossus throughout the mid-20th century, revered by his clients – who, famously, never dared interfere with his designs whatever their needs – and his contemporaries alike. He died in 1972 – the year Ghesquière was born – and retired in 1968, almost 30 years before his successor arrived there.
Next month, the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York will present Balenciaga: Spanish Master, the first exhibition to consider the impact of Spanish culture and art history on the great couturier. Curated by American Vogue's Hamish Bowles (who was responsible for Jacqueline Kennedy: the White House Years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2001), it will showcase more than 70 Cristóbal Balenciaga pieces, including the 1930 "infanta" gown and the "matador" bolero. The influence of Zurbaran, Goya, Picasso, Sorollo and Miro on his work will be explored, as will a preoccupation with his native country's royal and religious dress codes.
For his part, Ghesquière, who was appointed creative director of Balenciaga in 1997, is equally well-versed in both his own and the founder designer's cultural history and that, perhaps, is why, almost from the moment he took the helm, it became the proudly elitist designer tag to see and be seen wearing. Like Cristóbal Balenciaga, Ghesquière seemed to have little interest in toeing the line, preferring instead to keep his vision pure. Although slowly but surely new, more accessible lines – trousers, black dresses, knits, bags – have been introduced, fuelling sales, the twice-yearly women's wear collection is the jewel in the Balenciaga crown, a creative tour de force from which everything else springs.
Balenciaga: Spanish Master, 19 November to 19 February (www.queensofiaspanishinstitute.org)
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