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Brilliantly Balenciaga

Culture Watch
Sketch (left) of Balenciaga 'Infanta' evening dress, published in Vogue, 1939; a photograph of the same dress, 1939. Photo by George Hoyningen-Huene.

By Tali Jaffe

Described as “Fashion’s Picasso” by Cecil Beaton, Cristóbal Balenciaga certainly redefined the shape of fashion when he founded his eponymous house in Spain. However it wasn’t until he moved his studio to Paris in 1937, and produced his first runway collection, that the name Balenciaga became a sought-after name.

Now, nearly 75 years after his first runway collection, the House of Balenciaga and its namesake designer is being celebrated with an epic museum show, “Balenciaga and Spain.” Curated by Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s European Editor at Large, the exhibition features 120 haute couture garments, hats and headdresses designed by the Spanish master.

With references to Spanish art, bullfighting, dance, regional costume, the royal court and religious ceremonies, the objects included in the show are drawn from museum and private collections around the world, including 30 pieces from the House of Balenciaga. Many of the pieces on loan from museums, including Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, have never been seen before and include garments commissioned by socialites and celebrities, like Doris Duke, Baroness Pauline de Rothschild, Countess Mona Bismarck, Gloria Guinness, Ava Gardner and Elise Haas.

Beyond the legacy of his own house, some of Balenciaga’s protégés went on to become some of the industry’s most prominent names, including Andre Courreges, Emanuel Ungaro, Hubert de Givenchy and Oscar de la Renta. Perhaps as a tribute to his mentor, it was actually de la Renta who conceived of “Balenciaga and Spain,” which was first presented on a smaller scale at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute in New York. De la Renta invited Hamish Bowles—who loaned 17 pieces to the show from his own collection—to curate the exhibition.

“Balenciaga and Spain” is on view through July 4 at San Francisco’s De Young Museum. A catalog for the exhibition, written by Hamish Bowles and published by Skira Rizzoli, is available at Books & Books, Bal Harbour.

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