Sci-fi yarns: Knitwear gets a space-age overhaul

There's more to knitwear than keeping you cosy. Balenciaga's Nicolas Ghesquière has given it a deluxe space-age overhaul, says Susannah Frankel

Whoever said knitwear was easy? A boyfriend-fit sweater and/or self-tie cardigan coat might both be staples of the relaxed autumn wardrobe, but they are admittedly far from challenging.

Even so-called interesting knits – those blown up to larger-than-life proportions, say, or knitted by hand by a long-neglected and supremely gifted specialist based in a cottage in the Welsh valleys – boast a nostalgic, homespun charm over and above anything more pioneering.

Enter Nicolas Ghesquière, the brilliant Balenciaga designer, and a whole new lease of life for this formerly cosy winter stalwart.

There's an extreme rigour, as opposed to slouchy sloppiness, to the double-faced, jacquard-knit look photographed here that is rarely, if ever, associated with this particular craft. The sweater, lightly padded in parts, stands away from the body proudly, as opposed to swamping it; seen from behind, it appears to be winged. The patchworked detailing brings Space Age fashion over and above baby blankets to mind, and the colour mix is surprising, too – even jarring. Bordeaux, mustard and cornflower blue, anyone? Any pattern, meanwhile, is more Seventies Formica than reindeers and snowflakes, and that can only ever be a good thing.

Moving on, perhaps inevitably, to our heroine's trousers, and please note the slight change in the weave that suggests the outline of a pair of big knickers (never has the VPL been so fashionable). The point here, though, is that this is knitwear worked to haute couture standards – and, it has to be said, with prices to match. There's the Formica motif again and the colour-blocking which, incidentally, will be everywhere this coming spring, but we saw it here first. If M Ghesquière has his way, these pieces will be worn with a (very flattering) skinny belt (that's knitted too, please) and with shoes that might seem, at first glance, almost sensible. It comes as no great surprise, though, that they are, in fact, anything but. A crocodile-print leather moccasin in inoffensive beige is embellished with synthetic foam in pale aqua, and the heel is encased in the type of articulated Perspex structure of which Le Corbusier might have been proud.

Ghesquière has long argued that while his collections change – often dramatically – from season to season, the recipe remains the same. And this time around is nothing if not proof of that. The mix of craftsmanship and technological advancement, the juxtaposition of the banal with the extraordinary, the futuristic vein and hard-to-identify materials are all present and correct. In a season dominated by minimalism and clothes that are supposedly easy to wear and even easier on the eye, this is the exception that proves the rule. There's nothing simple, or indeed particularly pragmatic, about this particular vision. And that is precisely the point. After all, without it the world would be a far less interesting place.

"I was working on something domestic. Casual things mixed with classic. And a kind of rigidity," Ghesquière told the influential fashion website Style.com immediately after the collection in question was first shown in Paris. He went on to list as inspiration: cosmonauts, packaging and food boxes, foam and plywood, sleeping bags and biscuits ("French biscuits", to be precise, as well as the aforementioned kitchen work surfaces.

It's more than a decade since Ghesquière took to the helm of this long-revered fashion house and, remarkably, he has yet to put a foot wrong. Despite the fact that he moves his aesthetic forward at a speed that most other designers – let alone budget copycats – struggle to keep up with, he has the rare ability to excite and inspire time after time. The issue of just how wearable his main line collection may (or may not) be seems nothing short of pedestrian with this in mind. Unashamed elitism is the lifeblood here. That's not to say that the powers that be at the label are uninterested in more obviously commercial concerns. There are spin-off trouser, black dress, knitwear and, of course, accessory and handbag collections that all do their job where this is concerned. It is the main line that is magical though, and which sets the heart beating faster.

While the sheer modernity of Ghesquière's vision might suggest that he has reinvented this great status name entirely, there remains a respect for heritage throughout, however oblique that may be. The fashion trainspotter will immediately identify the sack backs and cocoon shapes that invariably appear as referencing couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga's archive, as well as the odd print that has been duly – and very cleverly – reworked. More importantly, perhaps, in spirit these two designers share more than a little in common, not least their refusal to compromise their vision to please their customer. Cristóbal Balenciaga famously insisted on silence when he was working, and would never have dreamt of allowing a client to tamper creatively with his designs. Leave that to the dressmakers.

Then there's the architectural quality of both creators' work, their wish to revolutionise material, proportion and cut. The woman who wears Balenciaga, then and now, is not afraid to flaunt her fashion credentials. She's happy to wear clothes that others may not understand, or even like, just so long as they make an impact. There is a considerably empowering and protective quality to that, after all.

The Balenciaga archive was a sadly neglected obscurity at the time that Ghesquière moved to the company. Today owned by the Gucci Group – which bought not only Balenciaga but also 51 per cent of Alexander McQueen and a 50 per cent stake in Stella McCartney at the turn of the millennium – any heritage pieces have since been restored, and are by now treated with the respect that is due.

Later this month, at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York, an exhibition of the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga promises to examine some 60 pieces and to consider the impact of Spain's culture, history and art on this, perhaps the greatest-ever couturier. Cecil Beaton famously described Balenciaga as "fashion's Picasso". Christian Dior referred to him as "the master", the normally serpent-tongued Coco Chanel acknowledged his supremacy – and all this despite the fact that the three were in direct competition. Curated by American Vogue's European editor-at-large, Hamish Bowles, and conceived by high-society designer, Oscar de la Renta, the show includes Balenciaga's 1939 Infanta gown, matador boleros that date back to 1946, flamenco-inspired dresses also dating back to the mid-20th century, and the embroidered 1957 wedding dress of Sonsoles Diez de Rivera (daughter of the Balenciaga muse, the Marquesa de Llanzol). The work of Zurbarán, Goya, Picasso, Miro and Velázquez is all clearly influential, as indeed is religious and ceremonial dress.

Ghesquière himself once described Balenciaga, who reigned over the rarefied world of haute couture for a good three decades, as "a very strange man", and that does indeed seem to have been the case. "We dress only thoroughbreds," is one of his most oft-quoted comments, which suggests a man far from endearing. In the end, his difficult and even hostile persona did little to lessen any impact – in fact, just the opposite is the case.

In her memoirs, Diana Vreeland described the experience of a Balenciaga presentation thus: "One fainted," the great lady wrote. "It was possible to blow up and die. At one show... Audrey Hepburn turned to me and asked why I wasn't frothing at the mouth at what I was seeing. I told her I was trying to act calm and detached because, after all, I was a member of the press. Across the way, Gloria Guinness was sliding out of her chair onto the floor. Everyone was going up in foam and thunder."

Balenciaga, Spanish Master, from 19 November, Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, New York, www.queensofiaspanishinstitute.org

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