Balenciaga in Black at the Kunst Museum in The Hague

When Cristóbal  Balenciaga abruptly closed his fashion house in 1968 it meant the end of an era of sculptural designs. Who would have thought that 50 years later, the fashion house would be revived by a pair of sneakers?

You may not like them (or even have strong feelings of distaste) but they did the job. Today’s generation loves Balenciaga! However, when asked about the age of the fashion house, they have no clue and guess it is only a decade old . . . You can add a century to that number and you are at the beginning of Balenciaga’s training as a tailor.

Cristóbal Balenciaga was born in 1895 on the coast of the Spanish Basque region. His father was a fisherman who sailed the Spanish royal family around when they were holidaying in San Sebastián. He undoubtedly brought the young Cristóbal along to do the chores. The boy’s mother, being a seamstress, also rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous. Having a talent for needle work he helped her out when his father died. This talent was noted by Marquise de Casa Torres who was so enthralled she financed his apprenticeship to a tailor in San Sebastián.

Climbing the ladder of the Au Louvre department store resulted in Balenciaga opening his own fashion house in 1917. He was only 22 years old. Thanks to his contacts in society the house thrived allowing him to open his own haute couture fashion house in 1924, followed by branches in Madrid and Barcelona in 1933 and 1935 respectively. He closed his entire fashion house in 1937 as a result of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Balenciaga then moved to Paris and his first show was an immediate success even though his creations cost about 3500 francs each.

Even before he went to Paris, Spanish culture was apparent in his designs. For instance, he didn’t like the bull fights. He only went to accompany clients who wanted to be taken there but then spent all his time there studying the beautiful jackets of the matadors. One of them is included in the exhibition and is, of course, black. Another example of the Spanish vibe are the dresses with loads of lace, referring to the mantillas and flamenco dresses.

Black is the second reference to his Spanish roots. Balenciaga was an avid admirer of Spanish 17th century painters Velasquez and Goya. Their subjects provided Balenciaga with ample inspiration for his designs. The Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid picked this up a couple of years ago and devoted an exhibition to this connection. Predominantly lack attire is often seen in portraits of important men like the kings of Spain, a style which was copied by the wealthy merchants of the Dutch Republic. With this connection in mind, Madelief Hohé, fashion curator of the Kunstmuseum, contacted Palais Galliera and asked if the exhibition L’Oeuvre Noir at the Musée Bourdelle in Paris, which focused on Balenciaga’s black designs, could transfer to at the Kunstmuseum.

It could and it does. Under the title Balenciaga in Black the museum’s rooms are filled with iconic black creations by Balenciaga: the Baby Doll Dress, the Sack Dress and the Balloon Dress. All these designs show why Balenciaga was such an innovator, or as Christian Dior put it, ‘Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives’. It is remarkable that Dior was in such awe for the Spanish designer who was the antithesis of his own New Look known for its iconic hourglass silhouette. Balenciaga created sculptures and did not care so much for the shoulder-breast-waist shape. He preferred space around the body without turning the body into a lump. His ‘sacks’ emphasized the legs and were extremely wearable at the same time.

The most interesting parts of the exhibition at the Kunstmuseum are the two toiles which explain how Balenciaga worked. He didn’t draw his designs, he created them on a doll in a three dimensional way, just as sculptures do. And since he never gave interviews (apart from one in 1971) and refused to gave a glimpse behind the scenes, this is the closest you ever get to the creative genius of Cristóbal Balenciaga whose sculptural designs ultimately lead to the sox shoe of his successor.  Wendy Fossen   20th November 2022

Balenciaga in Black continues at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague until 5th March.