Balenciaga’s last couture show was held in 1967 — the year the house closed. The Balenciaga we know today, under artistic director Demna Gvasalia, has gained a new cohort of young followers with its showy logo and streetwear sensibilities. The aesthetics now is vastly different from Mr Balenciaga’s ultra-feminine gowns that graced the silver screen on muses like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. However, Gvasalia has also often referenced Balenciaga’s archives, sampling from the sculptural tailoring and extravagant silhouettes, melding them into his design vision. The two worlds coming together has always presented intriguing juxtapositions. When the house announced last year that it would be presenting a haute couture collection for the first time in 54 years, it caused a great commotion. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced the show to be postponed (it was originally scheduled for January this year).
This week, the Balenciaga 50th Couture show became one of the most highly anticipated shows during couture week. Just like the Balenciaga shows in the ‘50s and ‘60s, models walked to a sound track of muffled footsteps on carpet, the rustling of fabric, and the faint jingle jangle of beads against beads. And there were plenty of references to the house’s couture archive — a 1967 Princess neckline embroidered evening gown, an evening coat with a sensual open back famously worn by prolific Balenciaga client Mona von Bismarck back in 1955 and, in the finale, a veiled wedding dress that wouldn’t seem out of place in Cristóbal Balenciaga’s final show. Other tributes to Mr Balenciaga included long opera gloves that were styled throughout this collection, the initials ‘C.B.’ hand-embroidered on silk ties and leather gloves — elements that typified Mr Balenciaga’s personal dress code — and the dramatic dome head gear (created in collaboration with milliner Philip Treacy) that referenced Mr Balenciaga’s love of hats.
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Of course Gvasalia’s signature subversive touch was omnipresent in this showing,. The aforementioned evening coat was hybridised with a floor-length parka jacket, complete with utilitarian pockets and drawstrings, and Mr Balenciaga’s beloved polka-dot motif was graphically reinterpreted in a corseted shirt, worn haphazardly off the shoulders, in classic Gvasalia style.
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Even though the gowns were interspersed along with informal hoodies and tracksuits, there was no mistaking that this was a couture collection. Innovative and traditional techniques were combined for unexpected results. Pieces that seemed to be made of fur or feathers, were in-fact densely embroidered loose threads or micro cut-outs. What appeared to be crocodile skin was in fact a pattern mapped with a computer programme and then painstakingly pieced together by hand. The collection was made in collaboration with ateliers like embroidery houses Atelier Jean-Pierre Ollier, Maison Lesage, Maison Lemarié and Atelier Montex; and fabric houses Dormeuil, Jakob Schlaepfer, Taroni and Forster Rohner.
Other whimsical touches included the recreation of the 10 Avenue George V salon, complete with the grey carpets, the polychromatic moulding on doorways, and the rows of gold chairs. The numbered cards held by models in the collection photographs that bring to mind the outfits photographed back in the days of yore were a playful final touch.