Balenciaga evening dress, 1954, and X ray photo by Nick Veaney at V&A Museum. Photo Ruth Eaton

London and Paris exhibitions: Balenciaga, Pierre et Gilles, Leandro Erlich and more

The winter months, when it’s cold and damp, seem particularly suited to visiting exhibitions (a favourite pastime for yours truly anyway) so here are a few recommendations of (fashion/textile-related) shows worth catching before they close if you’re in London or Paris.

Balenciaga Shaping Fashion, exhibition catalogue Leslie Ellis by Miller

 

Here in my home city, “Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion” is showing until February 18th 2018 at the Victoria and Albert Museum which has the largest collection of the Spanish couturier’s work in the UK (thanks to the photographer, Cecil Beaton). It’s been a huge success and, even though it’s not a very large retrospective, I’m sure I’m not the only person to have visited it several times – after all, it’s not every day that one gets to see the Master’s spectacular work up close.

Balenciaga La Tulipe evening dress for Ava Gardner, 1965 and Baby Doll dress, 1958 Photos V&A

 

The core of the exhibition focuses on Balenciaga’s craftsmanship and the technical skills that won him the admiration of his peers. We discover examples of his revolutionary shapes, such as the baby doll, the tunic, the envelope and the sack dress – which naturally caused quite a stir in 1957 when everyone was enamoured of the hourglass silhouette of Dior’s New Look. Fabric samples, patterns, toiles (recreated by London College of Fashion students) and amazing X-ray photographs by the X-ray artist Nick Veasey give us insight into how Balenciaga achieved many of these. In one X-ray we even see that the couturier had forgotten a few pins tucked inside a hem.

Balenciaga Shaping Fashion X-Ray by Nick Veasey

It’s not hard to understand why Balenciaga was adulated by a roster of clients that included Ava Gardner and Mona von Bismarck (who reputedly even commissioned the great couturier to make her gardening shorts!). Though a reserved man (he gave only one interview – after his retirement!), a sense of playfulness comes across in items such as a feathered bolero with feathers attached upside-down to increase movement or the long ruffled black lace “Mouton/Sheep” jacket, designed for Pauline de Rothschild to wear over white satin trousers when she entertained at Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

The second part of the exhibition looks at the work of some 30 fashion designers who have been influenced by the great couturier over the past 50 years. A clever sequence at the top of the stairs to this section shows Balenciaga creations morphing into more recent ones – the first time I visited I somehow missed it so keep an eye out!  A shared love for exquisite embroidery is evident in dresses similar to this (below) by Oscar de la Renta who apparently started his career in fashion picking up pins at EISA, the Madrid branch of the couture house. Balenciaga’s innovative use of fabric is referenced in the work of Nicholas Ghesquiere as are his pattern cutting techniques in the creations of Molly Goddard and Demna Gvasalia.

Oscar de la Renta, Embroidered dress, Spring Summer 2015. Photo credit Catwalking.com

Balenciaga’s heyday was the 1950s and ‘60’s but he’d be seriously impressed to see just how incredibly well his eponymous fashion house is doing today under Mr. Gvasalia’s creative direction!

Finally, a little side note: the film Phantom Thread has just opened in England. Have you seen it? In preparation for his role, Daniel Day-Lewis, the actor playing the imaginary British couturier Reynolds Woodcock, learnt dressmaking with Mark Happel, costume designer of the New York City Ballet. The learning process culminated in the recreation by hand of a grey wool dress designed by none other than … Cristobal Balenciaga.

Pierre et Gilles portrayal of Jean Paul Gaultier in De La Rue aux Etoiles. Photo via Pinterest.

 

Meanwhile, in Paris … The French artists Pierre et Gilles have been rubbing shoulders with the fashion world ever since they met at a Kenzo boutique opening over 40 years ago. Pierre Commoy is the photographer and Gilles Blanchard the painter and together they create powerful images such as this 2014 portrait of Jean-Paul Gaultier entitled “De la rue aux etoiles”. Their subjects, famous or anonymous, are captured on camera in life-size settings constructed in their studio and the photographs are then transferred onto canvas and reworked in paint. Their work explores questions of identity, equality and the human condition and is simultaneously very joyful and thought-provoking. In “The Death of Bernard Buffet”, now on display in the two-man show at Galerie Daniel Templon in the Marais (until March 10 2018), homage is paid to the French expressionist artist who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and committed suicide when he became unable to work.

At the nearby Centre Pompidou, an exhibition of the work of American textile artist Sheila Hicks has just opened and will be showing until April 18. More on that another time.

 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Seine river, at the famous Le Bon Marche department store, (upon which Emile Zola modelled his novel “Au Bonheur des Dames”/”The Ladies’ Delight”) the Argentinian  artist Leandro Erlich has been given the run of the shop. The self-described “illusionist” artist has delighted people world over with his large scale in-situ works. His intervention at Le Bon Marche follows those of Ai Wei-Wei who created kite-like mythological creatures and Chiharu Shihota who ‘drew’ 150 yarn and thread boats over a wave suspended from the ceiling, in “Where Are We Going?.” The only constraint imposed by the store is the privileged use of white.

Ai Weiwei exhibition at Le Bon Marche. Photo Design boom.

Chiharu Shioto Where Are We Going installation at Le Bon Marche, Paris

Of course a visit to Le Bon Marche (and its fabulous food section!) is always a treat, but Erlich’s intervention, “Sous Le Ciel”/”Under the Sky” transforms it into a poetic experience with clouds that float from the windows to the lifts and his poetic transformation of Andree Putman’s famous escalators leading up to … the sky, bien sur.

Leandro Erlich exhibition, 'Sous Le Ciel', with Andree Putman escalators, at Le Bon Marché. Photo copyright Gabriel de La Chapelle.

Ah! That Parisian sky. Writing about it makes me think of Yves Montand and Edith Piaf singing “Sous le ciel de Paris/S’envole une chanson”…

In fact, I think I’ll stop there for now and go sing in the shower. I’d love you to sing along. Just copy/paste one of these links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LACZU05vmbk  (Yves, with lyrics) or

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kouTi-0csLg (Edith, without) or

check out the official clip by ZAZ, with English lyrics and cool pics.

A bientot, dear friends,

Ruth xxx