To the latest generation of fashion fans, Balenciaga is the audacious brand with the pricey tote inspired by an IKEA carrier bag. Their parents may fondly recall the sensual feistiness of Nicolas Ghesquèire’s 15-year tenure at the house. In their grandparents’ day, however, Balenciaga was acknowledged as the master of haute couture, his name synonymous with inventive shapes and technical exactitude. Out of reach to all but American heiresses, European royalty and other denizens of the beau monde, his ground-breaking designs had a huge influence on the fashion of his own time and the decades that followed. Many of his pod-like and voluminous silhouettes still look strikingly contemporary: avant-garde, even.
Balenciaga was born in 1895 in the Basque region of northern Spain. It is now a century since he founded his fashion house in San Sebastian, and 80 years since his move to Paris. Rather than a full retrospective, Shaping Fashion focuses on the designer’s last decades, a period during which he knocked out an astonishing series of innovations: the sack-dress, trapeze-hemmed babydoll frocks, a one-seam coat, a tie-on skirt that could be worn as a cape, long puffball evening dresses that billowed like clouds. We tend to read fashion as an endless series of repetitions, references and rehashes – Balenciaga’s output in the Fifties and Sixties was a rare instance of a designer creating something completely new, and then doing it all over again the next season.